These Chuck Jones shorts will never usurp the Grinch in Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees's affections.
A seal and a cricket team up on DVD.
This animated double feature contains two half-hour stories produced, written, and directed by legendary animator Chuck Jones: The White Seal, from 1975, adapted from a Rudyard Kipling story and narrated by Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes), and The Cricket in Times Square, adapted from the classic children's book by George Selden. Although the two differ substantially in theme and in animation style, children who love stories with animal protagonists may find this a pleasing duo.
The White Seal is set in Nova Scotia and tells the story of Kotec, a seal pup whose name unfortunately suggests a feminine hygiene product, who stands apart from his fellows by virtue of his unusual color. At first Kotec's life is like that of any other young seal, as his kind mother (voiced by June Foray) teaches him to swim and educates him in safety precautions like staying far away from sharks and humans. But after Kotec frightens away some hunters, who think he is the vengeful ghost of the seals they have killed in the past, he decides to seek a haven where all the seals will be safe. To do so, he consults the whale and the walrus, and then goes in search of the sea cow, who is reputed to know of an island inaccessible to man. He must also confront the skepticism of the other bull seals, including his own curmudgeonly father.
The visual style of The White Seal is bold, colorful, and stylized, and its backdrops are greatly reminiscent of the style of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. There are even similarities in character design: the long-lashed Kotec and his mother often reminded me of the Grinch's dog Max. Oscar Dufau, who designed the production, also did layout for The Grinch, which may partially account for the similarities. Unfortunately, the underwater sequences don't hold up very well next to Disney's The Little Mermaid, let alone more recent computer-animated undersea stories like Finding Nemo. Nevertheless, there's a buoyant feeling to this animated story, helped along by the musical score, which is adapted from Beethoven's Sixth Symphony. It's also an accessible way to introduce children to issues of animal rights (although the very young may be frightened by the scene in which the hunters flourish their clubs over the cowering young seals).
The Cricket in Times Square, the so-called bonus feature on this disc, is actually the superior of the two. This 1973 short tells of Chester, a Connecticut cricket who gets transplanted to a newsstand in a New York subway station. His homesickness is assuaged by his new friends, jaunty Tucker the mouse (voiced by Mel Blanc) and the gentlemanly cat named Harry. When Chester realizes he has a musical gift, his melodious chirping brings admiring passersby to the newsstand and improves the fortunes of the struggling family that owns it.
The animation style for this story is in striking contrast to the previous one: The backgrounds and characters feature lots of pencil strokes and detail, and the story unfolds through unusual camera angles, mimicking the perspective of the tiny creatures at the heart of the story, and never showing the human characters' faces until the end of the tale. There is also a beautiful story-within-a-story rendered in a traditionally Asian visual style. This is a charming, heartwarming story, with plenty of humor and positive messages about helping others and how music can bridge the differences between people. Kids are also likely to relate to Chester's love of snacking (although his preference for liverwurst may wrinkle some noses).
Audiovisual quality for this release is respectable, if not stellar, considering that this material dates from thirty years ago; there is some dirt and speckling on the picture, but the colors are bold and attractive. The digitally mastered audio is clean, and although the voices don't have much dynamism, the violin stylings that represent Chester the cricket's songs emerge with surprising clarity. There are no extras, except for the trailers that play automatically (grr) before the feature starts.
These stories will appear unsophisticated next to much of today's movie animation, but they should appeal to young children who have not yet developed jaded palates. Parents may in fact find them refreshing in their more relaxed pace and gentle tone (not to mention the lack of pop songs and bodily function jokes). They are not as memorable as some of Chuck Jones's other classic animation, but parents in search of variety may be pleased to find them available on DVD.
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