Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger loves these stories, but knows a lackluster DVD when he sees one.
We'll have to make Stone Soup!
Some DVDs can be discussed with relative objectivity. Rate the story, critique the acting, examine the audiovisual quality…voilà! You have formed an opinion. In DVDs that you have a personal stake in, however, objectivity is not so simple. It surprised me to discover that I have a personal stake in this DVD. Three sides of my personality struggle to come to a consensus about Strega Nona…and More Caldecott Award-Winning Folk Tales.
Before we go too far, a note about the tales in question and the DVD presentation:
•"Strega Nona" by Tomie dePaola
•"Joseph Had a Little Overcoat" by Simms Taback (Narrated by
•"Stone Soup" by Marcia Brown
In general, the video quality in this DVD is poor. Colors are completely lifeless, desaturated, and dull. Copious nicks, scratches, dust blobs, and other artifacts plague the image. The focus drifts in and out. Audio quality is a bit more pleasing, with clear voices and lively music pepping things up. Trying to get to the stories is a bit aggravating: you'll need to sit through not one, not two, not three, but four studio intros before being allowed to access the root menu. I'm amused (in a bad way) by some of the extras. You can call them "Spanish Version of 'Stone Soup'" and "Read Along" if you want, but I call them Spanish language track and English subtitles, which are hardly extras. None of this may bother you if you're looking for an alternative to slickly commercial kids' entertainment—which brings me to the split personality thing.
My mother was at one time a children's librarian; my siblings and I were raised on these very tales. "Stone Soup" is a personal favorite, a story I relate to kids when the opportunity arises (although no one tells it nearly as well as Marcia Brown does). Tomie dePaola's "Strega Nona" with its whimsically earthy drawings and sweet story captured my young imagination. You could say that I have no problem with the source material. In fact, I cherish these tales dearly.
On the other hand, as an artist and animation lover, I'm familiar with current animation capabilities. When I view the abjectly crude animation presented in this DVD, not only do I think to myself "This looks like crap," but I fully realize how easily the animation could be improved. Give any graphic design student with a year or two of college under her belt a copy of "Stone Soup," Macromedia Flash, and an hour, and she'd produce something vastly superior. The copyright dates on these stories range from 1974 to 2004. In the case of the '70s-era clips, I assume that these simplistic animations are the same ones that I watched in elementary school. (Is this DVD for kids or for the parents who watched this stuff during media hour in elementary school?)
In the '70s, software tools weren't a viable option. You could animate stories by hand, but when you were starting from static illustrations the options were limited. "Joseph Had a Little Overcoat" is animated with a clever collage technique, where cut pieces of paper are shuffled around. "Strega Nona" has a more traditional animated approach, but the animation is Spartan. In "Stone Soup," you can't even call it animation. A camera moves over the static page, zooming in on the face of the person speaking and then backing out to show the whole page.
With the advent of Flash and more sophisticated animation tools, it would be straightforward to bring fresher and livelier animation to these beloved stories. I'm not asking for an onslaught of movement, just simple, tasteful, but nonetheless energetic touches of movement. Watching images flip horizontally to indicate a turn of the head is not my idea of engaging translations of a story. In the case of the 2004 versions, the use of these techniques seems like artificial sentiment. I'd rather watch someone reading these stories to a group of kids with occasional shots of the illustrations.
Which brings me to the third side, a parent who wonders "What does this DVD bring to the table that the books do not?" It certainly isn't animation. Though enjoyable, Rob Reiner's narration is no replacement for the sound of a father's voice reading to his child. "Joseph Had a Little Overcoat" introduces a song and dance number that gets us somewhere. But on the whole, I'd rather spend the time actually reading to my kid.
There, I said it. The ponytailed, Birkenstock-wearing, granola-munching, rabid hippie in me has been both upheld and rejected with that one conclusion. To be perfectly clear, I am not condemning these classic, wonderful stories, simply suggesting that this DVD offers nothing over the pure joy of reading them firsthand. It is a rather frustrating and lackluster presentation of great stories.
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