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.
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.
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.
My kids have many favorites, but the ones we adults sometimes catch ourselves humming aloud are
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Octonauts is a video series on Netflix and available on DVD. Some of the stories are also available as books and there are several toys out there of the characters. The look of the show is unique, a cross between kid-friendly 60s-era James Bond, ‘Sealab 2020’, and cutesy Japanese anime.
The show is not the creation of some corporate art department, but the work of a single design couple, who call themselves meomi.
They “live in Vancouver, Canada where we spend our days making up stories, drinking tea, and drawing strange characters. We love learning about underwater creatures and sharing our love for the ocean with kids (and grown-ups) around the world!”
Our kids like the characters, the pace of the storytelling, and the balance of adventure just at the edge of sometimes being a little scary but not quite. The videos are fun for adults as well. We find ourselves watching along with the kids to see where the story goes.
We like the educational aspect as well. Some of the episodes are just as informational as Wild Kratts or any other nature-themed cartoon. A lot of what I know of deep-sea creatures is from Octonauts. (Who knew vampire squid were real?)
Mr. DeMaio is an elementary school teacher in New Jersey who makes silly and fun absurd educational videos for his students. Since 2013, he’s put a few dozen videos on his YouTube channel
His playlists include songs about multiplication and
social studies themes, but my kids’ favorites are the ones about space and science
Unlike those who make most educational videos on YouTube, Mr. DeMaio is an actual teacher and knows the perfect balance of humor and education to keep kids’ attention while dosing out the knowledge. He’s also completely willing to act like a fool and get kids to laugh out loud. You can see his progression as a performer over the past few years. The earliest videos have him as a cool, aloof guy while he is much more of a clown in his more recent ones.
The videos are funny enough that kids as young as 3 can watch them and enjoy them even if they don’t understand the education.
The videos are very silly and absurd and our kids regularly recite catch-phrases from the videos. The format of the space and science videos is to have Mr. DeMaio interview things such as a tornado, or the planet Saturn, and these things act in a way just as silly as he does, in a way that subverts the normal way that these things are normally presented. For example, the planet Saturn is normally depicted as silent and mysteriously beautiful. In Mr. DeMaio’s video, the first we see of Saturn is a goofy face superimposed over an image of the planet saying, “I have a cat named ‘Orange Juice’!”
The education is basic: the names and basic stats of the planets, the names of the continents, etc.
The downside of these videos is that they are on YouTube, which not only has ads, but ads that don’t seem to be targeted in any way. Our kids have ended up seeing ads for inappropriate things so we make a point of supervising them while watching anything on YouTube.
I first heard of Doc McStuffins from a joke Nick Offerman told about the ubiquity of the character and the show’s theme song. And I couldn’t relate directly, having never seen the show, but I had had similar experiences with other shows, such as Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood or Caillou, which have songs catchy enough to take up permanent residence in your head, but aren’t so good that you want them there.
My dad then found some Little Golden books at the grocery store for maybe $1.50 apiece that were essentially book versions of some of the episodes. In my experience, novelizations of movies are one of the lowest forms of literature and I assumed that these books would be similarly terrible. And the name, “Doc McStuffins” sounded cutesy and stupid. But they’re actually pretty good. The writing of the original show is decent and the book versions tighten up the dialogue in order to to get to the heart of the plot.
The stories revolve around a girl who gives medical help to her stuffed animals. There is a bit of a ‘Toy Story’ feeling since the toys and dolls become inert when the parents or other kids are nearby. The stories begin with a toy or doll experiencing some problem and Doc then runs test to identify the problem and come up with a cure (which may involve duct tape or some other MacGyver-y solution). This is actually an excellent way for kids to get exposed to the scientific method and logical thinking.
We eventually found the show on TV and the kids got excited when they saw an episode that they had already read. And they enjoyed even more reading the book version of a episode they had already seen. Since they already knew the story and the dialogue, they had an easier time following along in the book.
I was surprised to learn that the show was a Disney Junior program. I love the classic Disney movies, but I associate current Disney programming with garbage shows such as “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody”, or other shows that sexualize preteens. So it was refreshing to see a show, and read books that do not do that.
Being a Disney product, you better believe there are loads of plastic toys for sale with the Doc character’s face on them. I can’t vouch for any of those, but the books and the show are good.