Believe me, you'll know Judge Erich Asperschlager's mating call when you hear it.
"Later with the tears, alright…I'm not extinct yet!"
Just in time for Earth Day, Jim Henson's The Song of the Cloud Forest makes its debut on DVD, in a collection that includes three other environmentally themed stories.
The Song of the Cloud Forest was originally created to be the latter half of an episode from the short-lived Jim Henson Hour TV show. The series was one of the great puppeteer's last projects, and one of my personal favorite things he ever did. Although the show was cancelled after only a handful of episodes, but I still remember being blown away by its visual inventiveness and creativity. The series used puppetry (or should that be Muppetry?) and a combination of practical and computer-generated special effects to tell fantastical tales. But Henson's career was about more than just telling exciting stories. He wanted to teach as well. From Sesame Street to Fraggle Rock, he knew that his fuzzy creatures captured children's imaginations; he wanted to feed their minds as well.
The Song of the Cloud Forest is not the best Henson special, but it does combine everything that made him such an important children's entertainer. As he did earlier in his career, this 1989 special—written by David Young and directed by Henson himself—imparts on its viewers a message of global responsibility, that no one is too small or too young to have an impact on the world around them.
Cloud Forest tells the story of a lonely golden toad named Milton. All day long he sits in his tree, singing his mating song, hoping that one day a female golden toad will hear him and sing her song in reply. But when a pair of humans (referred to as "uprights" by the forest residents) show up, the other animals overhear them say that the golden toad is virtually extinct. Milton vows to find his mate and fulfill his purpose, and along with his friends Wilf the howler monkey, Blanche the chameleon, and Aart the armadillo, he goes looking for the last female toad. Unfortunately for Milton, she is a trap set by the scientists (played by Henson puppeteers Jerry Nelson and Fran Brill) who want to capture Milton and bring him back to their lab.
The Song of the Cloud Forest is more jazz poem than cohesive narrative. There is a through story about Milton's willingness to risk capture to save his mate, and one scientist's struggle with keeping the toads in captivity—even if it will help repopulate the species. Mostly, though, the special bops back and forth between the different animals in the forest expressing their fears about losing their land, wondering about their chances of survival, and singing songs. In addition to the titular song that Milton sings, there is an upbeat ensemble piece celebrating the diversity of the forest. There's also a new wave-style song called "Munching Forest," sung by a robin who believes that humans want to devour every animal they see. The accompanying visuals feature downright freaky statue-faced humans eating snake, toad, and forest alike.
The Cloud Forest story is a meditation on rainforest destruction and environmental responsibility. It's fine, if heavy-handed. The most striking things about the special, though, are the visuals. The puppets were all shot against a black background that was later replaced by a computer-generated rainforest backdrop. The colors were then digitally manipulated, giving the picture an oversaturated look. I actually had to check my TV settings to make sure I hadn't turned on dynamic mode by mistake. The sound is just as rich. Beneath the dialogue is a tapestry of animal noises, atmospheric percussion, and exotic instrumentation. Since the special was made back in 1989, the computer effects are fairly primitive. Even so, the visual style is so unique it's still impressive in 2010.
To make The Song of the Cloud Forest's 24 minute length a palatable DVD purchase, the disc also includes three other "Earth Stories." There are two episodes from Jim Henson's Animal Show with Stinky and Jake. The series aired several years after Henson's death, but it maintains both his style and love of learning. The episodes included here are "Owl & Frog" and "Kangaroo & Frog." Although there is a little bit of overlap in the two frog segments, one examines the amphibian's nocturnal tendencies, while the other is about jumping. If you've never seen the show, it's presented as a talk show by and for animals hosted by a polar bear and a skunk. It's fun and informative, and these episodes should satisfy any kid who wants to know more about Milton and his family.
The final entry on the disc is an episode from kids' classic Fraggle Rock. In "The River of Life," Doc is approached by men who want to dump industrial waste into the "empty" limestone caverns beneath his property. Although Sprocket tries to convince him not to sign the lucrative contract, they test the equipment by pumping a hundred gallons of the poison into the ground. When all of the Fraggles except Boober get sick from the water, it's up to him to venture into Outer Space and convince the Silly Creatures to leave Fraggle Rock alone. Even for a show with strong messages, "River of Life" is one of Fraggle Rock's heaviest episodes. It shows just how dangerous chemical waste can be, by suggesting the very real possibility that all of the Fraggles could die. It's an important message, but not necessarily for young children.
While all of the messages on this disc are important, there is a wide range of ages being addressed here. Animal Show is obviously for a much younger crowd than Fraggle Rock, and although kids certainly stayed up to watch The Jim Henson Hour when it aired in primetime, it's meant for an adult audience, too (why else would one of the Cloud Forest animals make a reference to Milton's Paradise being "lost?"). I appreciate the makers of this DVD not just sticking one half hour special on a disc and selling it for full price, but I don't know how many kids will want to sit through The Song of the Cloud Forest and Other Earth Stories from beginning to end.
Another disappointment is that there are no bonus features. Back when Cloud Forest originally aired, there was a short Henson Hour segment about how it was made. This would have been the perfect place to show it again.
Still, for those of us who remember The Jim Henson Hour fondly, having one more piece of it made available on DVD is a great gift. The Song of the Cloud Forest isn't the best thing Henson ever made, and the other three entries are hit-or-miss depending on the age of the viewer, but I'm sure Jim Henson would be pleased to know that his message of love and harmony is reaching a new generation.
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