Good Eats

Price: $22.50
Was: $37.50

Watching Good Eats was one of my weekly rituals back in the ’90s, back when the Food Network was an emerging force on television. Unlike the standard TV chef format (cook looks across a counter at the viewer while preparing food), Good Eats’ Alton Brown gets into the science of food and does so in a fun and wacky way. This is great family viewing because parents learn about cooking and kids are entertained by the antics and learn some chemistry as well.

More on the show and some examples of Alton Brown’s style at foodnetwork.com

Stinky and Dirty

From somewhere we got a book called “I Stink!” that the kids liked enough to ask for it multiple nights in a row, although I initially didn’t care for it. It seemed a celebration of noise and filth that I just didn’t find amusing when trying to put little ones down for the night.

Price: $7.48
Was: $7.99

A few years later I saw that Amazon was premiering a new kids’ show called Stinky and Dirty that had animation that looked an awful lot like the book, and sure enough, the show is a spinoff of the book and its sequel. I suppose that’s a dream for many children’s book authors and illustrators, to have their work turned into a show.

Price: $5.94
Was: $6.99

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I and the kids really like it. The books are quite simple, running through the alphabet and showing vehicles making vehicle sounds. But the show is about teamwork and problem-solving, in a way that isn’t done on other shows.

The animation style is unique. It’s 3D but texture-mapped to look like paper illustrations.

The stinky garbage truck from the original book has a friend, a dirty dump truck. Together they go around solving problems. Several times each episode, one of the characters asks, “What if…?” And this makes it a great example for problem-solving. Their efforts don’t always work out, but they keep trying.

The show is streaming on Amazon Prime.

Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land

This is one of the great Disney shorts from their “classic” period of the 1950s and ’60s. It has Donald going on an adventure, learning about how math is the foundation for music, architecture, nature, and games. It explains the Golden Ratio phi and how simple ratios explain many things that we may not have ever thought about.

This is a great intro to some basic STEM concepts and will get kids in a creative and curious mindset.

In middle school, we would watch this in math class on the last day before winter break. I always had fond memories of it and was happy to be able to share it with my kids.

It’s hard to track down some of these older Disney cartoons. It’s only 27 minutes, so buying a DVD seems excessive. It is up on YouTube, but I assume those are not official copies.

It’s worth watching with the kids. Be warned though that you may have a strong urge to play pool when it’s over.

PJ Masks

I didn’t think the world needed yet another cartoon series, but this one is pretty good. It’s based off a series of French books (“Les Pyjamasques”) which gives it a certain je-ne-said-quois that differentiates it from the standard cookie cutter format of most American shows.

The idea is of three kids who have superpowers and solve crimes at night as Catboy, Owlette and Gekko (not ‘Gecko’), and they learn valuable lessons about friendship, teamwork, yada yada.

Disney is behind this, so expect the usual flood of board games and figures and spinoff games, etc. The cartoon is very wholesome, though, so I don’t mind.

They have their own official YouTube channel with live streaming of new videos, and the series is also currently streaming on Netflix.

Star Trek – The Animated Series

A lot of cartoons aimed at kids are not very good. They are either insipid, appealing only to toddlers, or have too much adult humor, or are essentially long advertisements. So I sometimes look for older cartoons, hoping that they will transcend, but boy oh boy are they violent. We tried watching Heckle and Jeckle, and the kids thought they were a riot, but they were so brutally violent that they are no longer allowed.

So, it was a pleasant surprise when I stumbled across episodes of the old Star Trek cartoon. I hadn’t realized (or forgotten) that the show was ever made. It was aired in 1973 and 1974 and was voiced by the original actors, lending some credibility to the show. The animation is pretty crummy, in the same cheap style as the old Spider-Man cartoons from the same era. But the animation quality doesn’t matter to kids so much.

What was appealing to me was the stories of adventure and working together and the importance of following rules and the idea of ‘conquering’ space by cataloging its peoples and planets rather than by defeating them. And the kids love space adventure stories with weird aliens and spaceships and the occasional threat of photon cannons, although problems tend to get resolved by talking it out, not by fighting.

Netflix is streaming season 2

Wikipedia has some info about the show

Bad Lip Reading Star Wars Songs

BLR is a YouTube phenomenon. A guy dubs over news clips and videos with silly nonsense and sometimes songs. The songs are very, very good – well-composed, well-performed and sung, and slickly produced. His re-dubs of music videos are better than the originals.

Not all of them are particularly kid-friendly, but most are.

In 2016, Disney hired him to create some dubs of clips from the original Star Wars trilogy, with guest star help from Jack Black and others, in order to promote the new Star Wars film. These are pretty good, but Disney has a way of inserting crude sexual humor into kids’ media. I assume their intention is to make it more entertaining for the adults watching, but it ends up being awkward and feeling inappropriate.

However, the BLR guy included little tunes in these dubs and then went ahead and produced full song videos from them. They are excellent. The kids and I have watched these several dozen times.

I’m not a fan of how Disney has treated the Star Wars franchise, partly because of the fetishization of the Empire instead of the rebels, partly because the new ones are so much more violent than the originals, and also because the writing for episode 7 felt like mere fan fiction.

So, the kids haven’t seen the new ones. But they still love the figures and the Lego sets and the aesthetic.

Rolling Stone has an interview with the creator, as does The Washington Post. And The Village Voice has a more recent one as well.


And a list of funny, catchy Star Wars songs would be incomplete without these:

KidsTV123

We try to restrict ‘screen time’ to weekends and when we do let the kids use our phones or the iPad we try to limit video usage to PBS Kids, Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. YouTube is a special case because of the quantity of ads, but also because of the content of the ads, which often is not appropriate. Further, YouTube, with its vast store of content, is a rabbit hole of discovery that can lead to inappropriate videos. An innocent search for ‘batman’, for example, can turn up raunchy spoofs that a 5-year-old should not see.

There are some (many, really) exceptions however, and we try to make sure we are around to supervise in order to prevent wandering into the YouTube equivalent of the wrong side of the tracks.

One of these exceptions is the set of ~200 videos from the unmemorably-named KidsTV123 which has had over 3 billion views since 2009.

Price: $12.00
Price: $12.00

My kids have many favorites, but the ones we adults sometimes catch ourselves humming aloud are

and

Many of the songs are true earworms, and the songwriter is a master of melody. The animation is very simple – the kind of thing that would never get distributed by a commercial network, but the kids don’t seem to care. In fact, the simplicity is part of the appeal.

The singer (and presumably also the songwriter and guitarist) is a bit of a mystery. His FAQ is not generous with details. The Week tried to profile him but came up short. But that anonymity adds to the allure and helps separate the music from the creator.

Bob the Builder: The Legend of the Golden Hammer

This movie is from Bob the Builder’s “middle period”, when the animation was done using CGI but meant to look like the original stop-motion style, but before the change to a more human-like look for the characters. This older look is more popular in our family. We seldom watch the new one, even though it is freely available on PBS Kids.

The structure of the story is that of a scavenger hunt, with each discovery leading to a new clue, ultimately resulting in the finding of the golden hammer. The tone is gentle and fun and the kids like the pacing. It’s like a mystery thriller for kids. There is lots of reinforcement about what has happened, what the characters have done and seen, so it’s not confusing for little ones, but it doesn’t get bogged down in repetition so is not boring for older ones.

IMDB has a rating of only 6.6/10 but our kids love it. This is one of the few movies that the kids ask for by name.

It’s available as a DVD and also streaming on Netflix and Amazon prime.

“Golden hammer” is the embodiment of The Law of the Instrument, the idea that your most familiar or available resource becomes the only one you rely on. In other words, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. I don’t know if the writers were making a point or not, but when I’m watching children’s cartoons, I find them more entertaining when I deconstruct them ad absurdum.

Moana

I’m normally a pretty cynical person, but I thought Moana was just great. Great story, great music, great everything.

(The executive producer was John Lasseter, who produced and/or wrote/driected most of the great Pixar movies before and after the Disney purchase, which may have something to do with the quality)

It is not a typical Disney princess movie, and in fact some of the dialogue pokes fun at that idea. The story is of a Polynesian girl who finds a demi-god (smug strongman and shape-shifter, Maui) and together they go on a fantastic adventure full of very original characters and scenes, with a very entertaining musical number by Jemaine Clement (of Flight of the Conchords) as a giant crab.

Fun for parents and kids alike, boys and girls.

The songs are catchy and tuneful, written by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and manage to maintain the balance between sounding authentically Polynesian and contemporary. The songs and the beautiful animation made me pine for Hawai’i.

There is also, of course, the obligatory themed Lego set:

Word Girl

The name is bland and the artwork is simple, but Word Girl is one of the better kids shows out there now.

You can watch it for free on PBS Kids, where you can also play related games.

The writing is snappy and funny enough to keep parents engaged. The voice acting is good, and helped with the comedic talent of Chris Parnell (Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, Archer).

I read once that J.K. Rowling chose to make her wizarding stories have a boy as the central character because she was afraid boys wouldn’t read a story with a female protagonist. And I’ve seen that behavior among boys, where they weren’t interested in stories ‘about girls’. But this show is very popular among our boys, and they were in rapt attention when watching a recent, very good set of episodes dedicated to bullying and rude behavior.

The dialogue is witty and multi-leveled and the education works at multiple levels as well, focusing on vocabulary and grammar, but also behavior and ethical/moral development. This means that kids of all ages can enjoy it and get something out of it, while not annoying the parents.