Friday, July 31, 2009

I SPY Books

It's a parents dream: for the low low price of $9.95, you can guarantee your attention span-less child will stay put in a single spot for an uncharacteristically extended period of time. Heck, parents would probably pay upwards of $100 for results like these, so those Scholastic people are really cutting them a deal on this one. Writer Jean Marzollo and photographer Walter Wick are probably laughing all the way to their interestingly cluttered homes full of cleverly arranged tough-to-spot ornamental and thematic objects.

Following in the well-hidden footsteps of Where's Waldo, Scholastic's series of I SPY books offered a handily portable search game certain to provide children with endless hours of contemplation and entertainment. Each page was its own magical little world of plentiful well-placed objects, usually within some sort of thematic framework. The pages themselves were visually impressive enough to enthrall children of any age, while the clever written riddlers were at times enough to stump any parents reading along.

These books were full of imagination and wonder, which generally translated into them being simultaneously mesmerizing and frustrating. Sure, the pictures were hypnotizing in their high level of visual interest, but they also gave our poor little eyes stare-at-an-eclipse level strain. It's a wonder we weren't all marveling over these books stooped over with Quasimodo-esque posture donning granny glasses dangling from a chain. If anything had the power to age us prematurely, it was these damn visual puzzlers.

We all started off pretty cocky. They'd throw a few easy search assignments at you to build your confidence in typical 90s rah-rah self-esteem style. Some of the clues were completely straightforward, as least in theory. In practice, we were required to actually locate these objects amidst a sea of unimportant junk. Just when we thought we'd finally conquered these perplexing puzzles, we'd get to one that had some sort of riddle. Oh, great, so now we have to think, too? What is this, The Eleventh Hour? And no secret solution in the back? For shame.

The pictures themselves were an impressive feat alone. Where exactly were they getting all of this stuff? I've been to plenty of garage sales and swap meets, but I've never managed to accumulate this volume of junk. How could they possibly track down so many button, marbles, manacala beads, and checkers to artfully arrange in a chaotically ordered manner?

And what sort of mixed messages were these sending children? Our parents say "Clean your room," and then offer us a book full of vast quantities of object in complete disarray? I tried writing a poem to go with my messy room, but my parents weren't taken in by my I SPY-like effort. If only they'd solved that riddle, I'd perhaps have had the confidence to pursue my then-chosen career as a search picture book stanza composer. Plus, they could have found my stuffed manatee.

Despite these personal setbacks, I can still admire these books' intricacies. While most parents tired of reading the same books to their children over and over, the I SPY series provided both parents and their offspring with hundreds of new items to discover with each read. You even have the opportunity at some healthy competition in your race to locate all the listed objects. Just be prepared for the inevitable resultant tears when your overly competitive father shouts, "In your face!" repeatedly to celebrate his obviously unfair victory. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Parents also had the advantage of softening the blow of defeat on their younger, more fragile children (read: the illiterate. Well, they can't. But you get the point.) Many of them quickly realized that especially in a family where multiple ages of children played with this book, you could, ahem, adapt it for younger non-reading kids. In other words: lie. Lie, lie, lie. "Oh, what does all that writing say? It says, look for the big happy clown in the middle of the page! What's that? Found it already! What a smart little boy!"

Try as I might, I was never able to recreate this scene with my own Tinker Toys. Perhaps it's because I didn't have a proper protractor and rainbow xylophone on hand.

In Scholastic's infinite wisdom (evidenced by their glorious, glorious book orders), they fashioned these books to be lightweight and highly portable. Translation: bring it in the car and maybe your children will shut the hell up on a long road trip. Without this type of legitimate distraction, who knows what dire lengths you'd have to go to to satiate your restless and irritable children. In my family, we were reduced to stopping off at a cemetery so us kids could run around. Unfortunately for my parents, from then on whenever my sister and I spotted a cemetery from the car, we would eagerly implore, "Play, play!" Honestly, we wouldv'e been much better off with an I SPY book. After all, it's far more difficult to disrespect the dead with one of those babies.

So for those of you with children who prefer not to engage in any type of sacrilege sure to anger someone upstairs, I'd highly recommend investing in one of these. And for those of you without children, my advice stands. Alright, so you may get some questionable looks when you whip out I SPY: Spooky Night on your subway trip home from your hours of enslavement to the man, but just imagine how excited you'll be when you finally locate that cross-eyed jack-o-latern.

Suggested public transit reading to ward off unwanted conversation. I'm warning you though, finding that jack-o-latern is a real bitch.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Billy Madison

As much as I want to believe my sense of humor mature along with my progression in chronological age, I always always find myself laughing with equal fervor when confronted with a movie that so entertained in my youth. While I wish I could say that I can no longer recite by heart those movies that cracked me up in my childhood, that is simply not the case. If anything, the quotations get further ingrained into my brain with each passing year. I think it's some sort of late-developing side effect from the original branding process.

Such is the case with Billy Madison, which I happened to catch a 30-minute chunk of on TV this weekend while waiting for some friends to arrive. When I selected the film from the innumerable channel offerings on my boyfriend's digital cable listing, I assumed I'd have outgrown the movie's juvenile humor that so delighted my fifth-grade self. Unfortunately for my ego's sense of wisdom and sophistication, I was dead wrong. Within minutes, I was laughing out loud and had completely abandoned any previous pretension about maturity and humor. How could I uphold such a standard when confronted with an image of Miss Lippy eating paste? How, I ask you?

Oh, and speaking of Miss Lippy, her car is green. Did you know? You can buy this nostalgia-rich tee shirt at Look at Me Shirts

It would take a man of steel with a heart of lead to avoid snorting with laughter at a scene like that. Or at least a far less childish sense of humor. I haven't decided which one. For the sake of what's left of my so-called adult pride, I'm going to go with the first one.

Sure, it's a stupid movie. That's probably why it appealed to so many of us as children. As an alleged grown-up, I'm often shocked at the tepid or even straight-up poor critical reception that greeted some of my favorite childhood films. Than again, critics have a habit of being self-important snobs, so it makes all the more sense that whatever they pan would be greedily consumed by unquestioning children. Right? I'm glad you're coming with me on that one.

For those of us who grew up during Sandler's Saturday Night Live days, we had come to expect a certain level of child-friendly humor from him. That's not to say it was appropriate, but more that he was, let's say, in touch with his inner child and it frequently manifested itself in his outwardly childish portrayals of his characters. It was this quality that made him so well-matched to the role of the eponymous overgrown spoiled-rotten under-educated child in Billy Madison.

Billy Madison is certainly not for everyone, I'll give you that. The plot is not only far-fetched but teeters on the edge of completely ridiculous. It's not really meant to make any sort of sense, though; it's meant to be fun. You certainly can't deny that everyone involved in this film seems to be having a grand old time. If you still have yet to comprehend the juvenile nature of the film, here's the theatrical trailer to help you out. Hint: it begins with a loud farting noise. Classy, no?

Like I said, it's not for everyone, but it certainly still makes me laugh. It was the perfect film for children and teens largely on the basis of its incredible quotability. Nearly everything out of everyone's mouth is so ridiculous most of us were certain it bore repeating. Our parents may not have cracked a smile after the first or second time, but you could bet our buddies on the playground would still be rolling in the sandbox after our forty-second go.

At the beginning of the movie, we meet Billy Madison, the errant son of a wealthy hotel chain owner. He spends his reckless yet undeniably enjoyable days wreaking havoc with his deadbeat friends all over the sprawling Madison estate. We get a good sense of his intellectual capacity in this little bath time exchange, during which he contemplates the relative merits of shampoo versus conditioner. No doubt a highly taxing debate:

I can't even begin to count how many times I heard my classmates say, "Stop looking at me, SWAN!" I'm willing to bet it registers in the quadruple digits, far outstripping the counting abilities of Mr. Madison himself. Either way, I still think the answer to this age-old debate is conditioner.

Billy's father has decided he can tolerate no more after Billy's ridiculously inappropriate outburst of gibberish at a critical business dinner. It's no wonder he opts not to make Billy the future proprietor of his business after these certifiable antics:

Needless to say, Billy is pissed. His dad's choice is Eric, a conniving, weaselish little man who is admittedly less than virtuous. Billy swears he handle the responsibility, but his dear old dad lets it slip that he bribed Billy's teachers into passing him, thus making his whole education a sham. After some questionable compromising, they agree that if Billy can pass every grade from kindergarten to 12th in two weeks apiece, he can earn his birthright.

Billy was unsurprisingly at ease in kindergarten with the aforementioned Miss Lippy, finally feeling at home with his intellectual equals. Unfortunately for them, he's a tad profane for their milk-cookies-and-naptime lifestyles.

Billy scoots through his first few grades, naturally throwing a huge unwarranted party after each grade advancement. It's in second grade that we meet our heroine, the lovely Miss Veronica Vaughn played by Brigitte Wilson. She also totally played bimbo Ginger in Saved by the Bell. Neat, right?:

At least Billy finally makes a friend, nerdy third grader Ernie. On a field trip to some sort of colonial farm, Ernie pees his pants. In Billy's first real moment of good-heartedness, he pretends he too peed his pants, passing it off as cool. It's all pretty sweet until the elderly colonial field trip guide says, "If peeing your pants is cool, consider me Miles Davis!" Yech. Oh, this scene also features an overblown Chris Farley with a sweet comb-over. Can you beat that?

Billy's progressing nicely, much to the chagrin of the villainous Eric. Unfortunately, he's not quite as popular in high school as he was in elementary school. While his lame jokes easily earned him the respect of third graders, they failed to have the same effect on his teenage peers. His crack during biology, "Chlorophyll? More like borophyll!" didn't do much to bolster his status. He even fails to escape the long line of O'Doyle family bullies, who seem to have enough kids to opress Billy every step of the way. Observe, a montage:

Eric conveniently knows some blackmail-worthy dirt on the elementary school principal and forces him to publicly state that Billy bribed him into passing him. Unnerved and outraged by this serious setback, Billy eventually gives in and reverts to his former slacker self. Despite numerous pleas from those who have seen him better himself through his educational exploits, Billy remains unmoved. Veronica eventually throws his drunk ass in the pool and tries to literally knock some sense into him via physical violence. This seems to jar Billy back to his motivation, and they all do a lovely little musical number. Sandler gets to showcase his Operaman chops and Wilson (Veronica) gets to dress like the St. Pauli Girl. Hey, everyone wins!

Billy keeps studying and agrees to face off with Eric in an academic decathlon. In a moment of pure ridiculousness, Billy offers an answer to a question about the Industrial Revolution by citing his kindergarten story of the puppy who lost his way. This tongue-in-cheek allusion to a convenient full circle feel-good ending is met with a big fat zero points, and a pretty serious verbal chastisement from the distressed host.

Billy Madison - Industrial Revolution Puppy

Eric is just about to clinch the whole thing when he flips out and brandishes a gun at the crowd. Fortunately for Billy, an unexpected guest arrives also wiedling a gun: his ex-classmate (played by Steve Buscemi) whom Billy had called earlier in the film to apologize to for his teasing. Everyone loves a movie with Steve Buscemi, right? It means you get to like a whole lot of movies. Stevie shoots a non-fatal shot at Eric, and we can all rejoice. Hooray!

At his graduation, Billy decides not to take over the company after all but to hand over the reins to his father's more subdued and ethical colleague Carl. Billy announces that inspired by his experience, he will now be heading to college to become a teacher. All together now: awww.

Okay, okay, I'll concede it's not the most brilliant comedic masterpiece to ever pass through theaters. Sure, it's not earth-shattering in any way. It didn't create peace in the middle east or bring high-speed internet connections to the shantytowns of undeveloped countries. But hey, you have to admit, you'd rather watch this than Click or Bedtime Stories any day. Am I right?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


There's nothing quite like letting sadistic young children play God. When virtual pets burst onto the scene in the mid-nineties, toy manufacturers put the fragile lives of these pixelated playmates into the sometimes malevolent hands of careless children. Sure, most of these kids meant to feed and care for these miniature en-egged virtual beings, but things just sort of came up. You know.

Also, it probably doesn't send the most serious life-or-death message about caring for a pet to attach it to a handy keychain. I don't see any household kittens or puppies conveniently hanging from the zipper of a kids' backpack. Then again, real pets don't have a reset button, so perhaps it's not the most fair comparison.

Admittedly virtual pets didn't necessarily lend themselves to teaching responsibility. There was really no consequence for allowing your virtual pet to die, unless you somehow managed to develop a deep emotional bond to this poorly animated blob-with-eyes that lived in your plastic egg keychain. I'm willing to give these alleged highly sympathetic youngsters the benefit of the doubt, but they certainly weren't my Tamagotchi-toting peers.

Tamagotchis were sort of like a highly primitve version of the Sims: as a virtual pet owner, you were expected to feed it, allow it to go to the bathroom, entertain it, making sure it slept, and monitor its general happiness and well-being. In the early models, the "fun" factor was pretty straightforward. The very act of feeding and cleaning up after a blinking pixelated image was supposed to be sufficient entertainment. This was no-frills fun at its bare-bones finest.

A late-90s "Angel" model. For some reason, they thought it wise to make this commercial simultaneously completely terrifying and likely to offend multiple religious sects. Kudos, Tamagatchi. Kudos.

Miraculously, the concept clicked. Children adored these things. They couldn't get enough. They wanted their house key-rings and backpacks to clack with the delightful click-click-click of multiple coexisting virtual pets. Immediately following their release in 1996, the product sold over 40 million units worldwide. Let me repeat that. 40 million. Pretty incredible.

For parents, the decision to purchase a virtual pet over a real living, pooping, money-bleeding animal was a pretty obvious one. Either your child could beg and plead and throw themselves screaming onto the floor swearing that they'll take care of that new puppy, or you can satiate them with a cheap little piece of plastic that does double duty on surreptitiously teaching them the virtue of responsibility. Talk about killing two birds with one stone. If you'd let them take care of that real parakeet, they'd only get to kill one.

Once these babies hatched, their fate was literally in your hands. Though early models were primitive, they were capable to developing personalities. Feed it and care for it and it becomes lovable, content, and well-behaved. Treat it poorly and you get a vicious, angry, monstrous little guy who's just begging you to press that reset button and restart his sad little life. The choice is yours.

There was always that one kid (most likely the same one who kicked bunnies and stomped on cute little field mice) who derived some sick pleasure from making his Tamagatchi's life a virtual hell. Intentionally neglectful, he or she would get a real kick out of watching their precious virtual pet shrivel and die, refusing to respond to its most basic needs. Unfortunately for us concerned virtual pet defenders, the ASPCA had yet to classify Tamagatchi abuse as something worthy of sponsorship. Keep fighting the good fight, friends. We'll get there.

In general, the issue with designating even this virtual responsibility to children was that these things were constantly needy. Never mind the fact that as over-programemd children we had to go to school and soccer practice and piano lessons. Our Tamagotchis required incessant care. Leave the sound on and your mini egg would beep frequently, your little Tami begging for attention and food. Even disabling the sound wasn't enough to quiet the little guy's neediness: the lights would flash again and again until you finally gave in and attended to your virtual charge.

In no time at all, schools took notice of the distracting toys and many instituted classroom bans to prevent children from caring for their pets on school time. While some adults contended that the pets helped kids learn discipline and develop a sense of responsibility, most agreed that these things were pretty damn annoying when they were trying to review times tables or clarify parts of speech. The pets became contraband and grounds for heartbreaking teacher confiscation. Sure, it was unlikely that we'd ever bring a real live hamster or guinea pig to class with us to monitor its well-being, but it was the principle of the thing.

Despite these setbacks, the toy remained wildly popular. Numerous knockoffs emerged, including the successful Gigapets and Nanopets. Before long, the virtual pet marketplace was flooded with a plethora of different types of animal, human, and alien egg keychains. Luckily for the current young population, these things are making a comeback and even feature a pause button to allow them time away from the virtual enslavement of their little charge. Sure, now these kids have Webkinz and all other impressive types of newfangled technologically tied toys, but somehow the simplicity of a Tamagotchi remains an appealing credential for parental purchase.

In case this reminiscence failed to satisfy your inner virtual pet caretaker, fear not. If all this wasn't enough, maybe you could use a little web-based support in the form of a new song by pop duo Looner. They obviously loved their Tamagatchi as much as you did, perhaps more as they've recently released a single detailing said love. Enjoy.

Check it out:
Virtual Pets for iPhones

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

LA Lights

Whenever I'm shopping for practical, functional sneakers for my imaginary children, I always think to myself, "Wouldn't these be better with some sort of poisonous substance in them? Maybe we could line them with some cushy asbestos or inject a teeny syringeful of arsenic. Just a little something to up the ante on the excitement of wearing stylish, dangerous footwear."

I can only imagine my parents were thinking the same thing when they caved to my endless pleas and purchased me my very own pair of LA Lights. They wouldn't even let me touch the glass thermometer and always seemed a bit concerned I may take to munching on the paint chips from our basement window, but they seemed happy enough to buy me a light-up sneaker chock-full of good old fashioned mercury. Granted, they may not have known of the risk at the time, but I have my suspicions. After all, they let me lick all of those recalled lead-painted Happy Meal toys, didn't they?

LA Gear was a popular brand of athletic shoes, boasting endorsements from the likes of Michael Jackson, Wayne Gretzky, Paula Abdul, Kareem Abdul Jabar, and Joe Montana. In the 80s and 90s LA Gear churned out signature style sneakers marketed to both the athletic and fashion conscious, capitalizing on their celebrity endorsements and placement in high-end department stores to boost their image and project an elite manner of sneaker snobbery.

During the company's pre-light era (circa 1990), MJ danced in his LA Gear sneaks

In 1992, they introduced an innovative design concept that undoubtedly endeared them to children on the virtue of sheer novelty and value to the easily entertained. The concept was simple but new: light-up sneakers. It's a well-known fact that children are big fans of simple visual stimuli, and these shoes were no exception. With each contact of the shoe-wearer's heel to the ground, the shoe would emit a flash of colored light. The inevitable oohing and ahhing was certain to make you the talk of the playground. These babies weren't so great for sneaking up on people, but they certainly were, ahem, flashy.

The shoes were comfortable as any sneaker but with every step, a burst of red LED light would flash from your heel. A a child, this was really the ultimate footwear victory. Suddenly, your shoes were not merely a functional piece of clothing but rather a legitimate novelty item to amuse and distract your classmates. In their own way, LA Lights were hypnotizing; watch a wearer walk away and you became mesmerized by the glowing flashes of light emanating from their shoes.

These light-up shoes unfortunately had a dark side as well. Unbeknownst to us as innocent children, the substance activating that little LED light was indeed mercury, a toxic element that could induce adverse effects on those in contact with it. Let's be real here: the actual tangible threat of mercury in our sneakers was pretty low. After all, it was handily encased in multiple layers of solid plastic. Unluckily for LA Gear, neither the plastic nor its corresponding argument of safety were solid enough to ward off the Cautious Cathys among us.

And so it went. Just as these sneakers had bounded into our hearts and lit up our lives, so fleetingly did they pass. Parents and watchdog groups weren't particularly keen to the idea of a poisonous compound seeping into children's heels with every blinking step they took. Environmentalists in my home state of Minnesota were among the first to take action against the well-intentioned LA Lights parent company, LA Gear.

LA Gear settled with the Minnesotan group with both a financial agreement and by establishing a mail-in program to safely recycle and dispose of the hazardous elements of the shoes. I can remember that day we mailed in my shoes and I said goodbye to those twinkling lights forever. As a child, I was not particularly concerned with the environmental or toxicity implications but more that I was forced to replace my beloved LA Lights with a crappy pair of white Stride Rites. Traumatic, indeed.

The manufacturers changed from a mercury to an inertial switch, but their product image had been tarnished and the brand was in decline. In 1995, the company made an agreement for their products to be sold in Wal-Mart stores, a rebranding effort that diminished LA Gear's hard-earned upmarket image. Sales dropped and by the late 90s LA Gear took action toward bankruptcy.

While our 90s pal LL Cool J might tell us not to call it a comeback, LA Gear has taken serious strides* toward reestablishing their brand. LA Gear is bringing back many classic styles including the beloved lights line sans toxic liquid innards. Yes, you heard right. Your present and/or future children too can relive the magic of LA Lights. In fact, just a few days ago posted the following sneak peak at the new light-up LA Gear sneakers:

I know, I know, it's too dark to get a real handle on the detailing, but just use your imagination. After all, if a sneaker company can find a way to use poisonous chemicals to bring joy into the lives of easily amused children, the least you can do is find it in your hearts to be impressed with this tease of a promo.

*please excuse this shoe joke

Monday, July 27, 2009

90 TV Musical Episodes

Who doesn't love a good ratings ploy from time to time? Perhaps that's just my 90s-style cynicism talking; I'm sure these producers were only out to express themselves creatively through the art of song. Oh, and to totally sweep in the ratings. Mostly the ratings thing.

Daria: Daria!

Any moderately faithful reader of Children of the 90s knows I'm a huge proponent of the 90s animated sarcast-erpiece Daria. In fact, I've spent much of my time as a broken ankled bed-bound invalid watching seasons 1-3 of Daria. Season 3's "Daria!" was admittedly uncharacteristically gimmicky in its musical format. It's tone certainly clashes with Daria's self-described bitter 90s cynicism, but its quirky musical numbers and naturally disastrous hurricane theme manage to tether it down to appropriate Daria sarcasm levels.

The songs are uncannily catchy. The episode particularly reminds me of how much I love Daria's dear old Dad Jake. His performance in "God God Dammit" and "Manly" truly captured his good-natured anger and mild insanity. When he sings, "I'm proud to be the home/of a Y chromosome", he does so with such fervor and intent that I'm nearly spurned to jealousy at my unfortunate double-X situation. "Obsessed", the duet between sister Quinn and mother Helen illuminates the perfectionistic similarities of their personalities that were obviously too nuanced for those of us assuming both were merely well-intentioned but grating.

Of course, I'm somewhat partial to "They Must be Worried", mainly because I love Brittany's squeak. It's just so eardrum-shatteringly endearing. Help yourself to the full episode below:

Buffy The Vampire Slayer: "Once More with Feeling"

Okay, so technically this episode wasn't broadcast until 2001, but the producers had been tossing around the idea for years. Unluckily for them, the timing of the Xena: Warrior Princess musical (see below) put a halt to their plans. After all, they didn't want to appear to be piggybacking on the success of their fellow hit fantasy program.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a show with a serious cult following, so the show's producers had a good deal of leeway from their trusting fans. Not every live action show can swing a musical, but Buffy viewers had some pretty serious faith in the object of their television affection. Of course, musicals work better in fantasy shows as there can be some sort of vague and mysterious supernatural force that brings about this wave of singing and dancing. Such was the case in "Once More with Feeling", where everyone has suddenly been compelled to air their innermost feelings via song-and-dance. Unluckily for some, this could backfire and short-circuit, causing spontaneous combustion.

The songs are well-arranged and the cast is surprisingly musically inclined. All of the cast members sing their own parts, though some of the less musically robust stars have fewer singing parts than others. The episode was extremely well-received by Buffy's loyal fan base and critics alike, with TV Guide ranking the episode at a noteworthy 14th place on its countdown of TV's 100 best episodes.

Rocko's Modern Life: Zanzibar

You know a musical episode has some powerfully catchy songs when you still clearly remember the lyrics unprovoked 13 years later. This Earth Day themed musical featured the good-hearted earth-minded citizens of O-Town seeking to clean up their town and fight against the tyrannical pollution from supercorporatio Conglom-O (slogan: "We Own You"). Rocko's Modern Life is one of those great cartoons aimed at children that manages to be legitimately funny on a level more mature audiences can enjoy.

"Zanzibar" doesn't disappoint on the well-timed deadpan humor. When everyone spontaneously bursts into song about Spring Cleaning, Rocko looks around bemused and bewildered. "How is it you all know the words? Did you rehearse?" He asks somewhat accusatorily in that adorable Aussie accent of it. "Yeah, every Thursday," his pal Heffer replies without skipping a beat, brandishing a paper filled with rehearsal details. "Didn't you see the flyers?" Thus goes the tongue-in-cheek but admittedly socially-conscious musical episode: it doesn't water down the message, but it certainly entertains between preaching.

Luckily a giant compost heap with some helpful visual aids commands them to "R-E-C-Y-C-L-E recycle! C-O-N-S-E-R-V-E conserve! Don't you P-O-L-L-U-T-E pollute the river sky or sea or else you're gonna geeeeeet...what you deseeeeerve!" Moved by the rotting vegetable heap's words, the crowd takes to city hall in the form of a big unruly mob. Despite some setbacks, Rocko succeeds at fighting City Hall. Ed Bighead gets sentenced to some dirty work cleanup but remains unmoved by the cause.

Luckily, the compost heap returns at the close to offer us these heady words of wisdom, "See kids? If we're not nice to Mother Nature, she'll kick our butts." Wise words indeed, especially as they come from a rotting pile of discarded vegetation.

Rocko's Modern Life - Zanzibar

Xena: The Bitter Suite

The 90s were big on historical fantasy, specifically those types of shows geared toward historical fantasy nerd fetishists. Xena: Warrior Princess featured hulkingly beautiful Amazonian Lucy Lawless as a muscularly endowed ancient Grecian seeking to repent for past sins by helping others. A spinoff of Hercules: The Legendary Journey, the show could be summarized in the following SAT-style analogy: Xena is to Hercules as pseudo-historical porn for female-seeking fantasy nerds is to pseudo-historical porn for male-seeking fantasy nerds.

The show didn't need much of a push to be classified as over-the-top, but its musicals certainly made a valiant effort. The show produced a musical episode entitled "The Bitter Suite", featuring original songs. I was never much of a Xena person, but admittedly the promo below makes it look like a veritable guilty pleasure. The Bitter Suite pitted Xena and her sidekick Gabrielle against one another in the mysterious Land of Illusia after Gabs's semi-demonic daughter kills Xena's son. Scandalous, no? From my limited knowledge of Xena music (based on the non-lyrical Xena episodic soundtrack I used for a synchronized swimming trio routine), I'll put myself out on a limb and vouch that it's pretty badass. In a pseudo-historical fantasy television sort of way, that is.

Garfield and Friends: Picnic Panic

I can't lie to you, readers. I mainly just like this episode because of the singing ants. They're so cute. And I don't even like ants. They move in on the picnic and steal their delicious basketful of food, singing the whole way through in their adorable tinny ant voices.

A close second for Garfield doing an impression of BLT on rye. Really, he's quite convincing.

Though musical episodes are risky, they're also a lot of fun if the show manages to pull them off. I'd venture to say most of these episodes succeeded, as I am still humming, "R-E-C-Y-C-L-E recycle" to myself at inopportune times. If you watched that video, I'm willing to bet that you are, too.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Sharon, Lois, and Bram Elephant Show

When you're a child, you accept things at face value. There's no insatiable need to make sense of things; instead, you assume that everything makes perfect sense as it is. Once you're an adult, of course, you can see that much of what you so thoughtlessly accepted was completely and totally absurd. Really, just all sorts of insane.

Thus is the case with most children's entertainers, particularly those who are musically inclined. These people, though physically adults, seem to have tapped into some unique inherent skill to retain a childlike outlook on the world. To children, the world is a fanciful place full of possibilities. Though as cynical adults we're pretty sure that's not true and can outwardly express bitter resentment at everyone who encouraged us to believe so while growing up, professional children's entertainers seem able to block out this negativity altogether. While this quality is admirable and their output certainly speaks to and entertains children, looking back at the people who entertained us as kids we may have to think twice about our unquestioning devotion to their work.

Sharon, Lois, and Bram managed not only to retain this sense of wonder, but also to package and market it in a highly lucrative if admittedly elephant-heavy way. They forged for themselves a highly successful decades-spanning career, boasting innumerable albums, television shows, and live performances. Sharon, Lois, and Bram were generally received with rave reviews, though this snippet from the Toronto Star makes me question the city's sense of perspective: "Simply the best musicians in North America, and probably the world."

Wow. Well there you have it. Forget all of those Julliard-trained classical musicians and ground-breaking musical trailblazers--all along, our best and brightest have been 3 middle-aged folks singing around a giant anthropomorphic elephant. Of course.

Children ate this stuff up. They loved it. The trio began touring together in 1979 and spent a good portion of the 80s and 90s cashing in with their fun and silly set list. The really got that kids required no background information whatsoever, particularly in their zany television exploits. They certainly utitlized this principle to their favor in The Elephant Show, their Canadian children's variety show that later re-ran on American television.

Sharon, Lois, and Bram's Elephant Show was children's programming at its finest. For no good reason, Sharon, Lois, and Bram lived together in a house with a giant mute elephant whose presence was represented only by punctuated tuba notes. No one ever discussed their living arrangement or relationship to one another, nor did anyone question the fact that they were constantly hanging out with a random group of children. Maybe I'm off base here, but to me this behavior seems mildly suspect. As a kid, however, I just assumed that my neighborhood gang's respective trio of adults and a giant elephant had yet to move in next door and take an interest in our daily activities. It was coming, I just knew it.

Regardless of the questionable premise, this jazzy intro with corresponding wacky animation sequence was enough to quiet anyone's inquiries:

I love the three different kids that get to shout out our stars' names. "Sharon!" "Lois!" "And Braaaam!" What kind of a name is Bram, anyway? Is this some sort of traditional Canadian thing? Either way, our pals Sharon, Lois, Bram, and Elephant were a fun group who spent all of their time on adventures, breaking spontaneously into song, and inviting unsuspecting little children to come and hang out in their wacky home. They were all super over-actors, except Elephant who managed to keep things booming-notedly subdued, as seen here:

They usually included some sort of live-performance segment, highlighting both their stage presence and awesomely 80s and early 90s outfits. These segments were usually taped in a theater in front of a full audience, with all sorts of fun audience participation. Oh, how I yearned to be one of those kids nodding and clapping along. Nodding and clapping along at home just wasn't the same, though in retrospect it was probably less publicly embarrassing.

And of course, no show would be complete without their signature jam, "Skinnamarink." No, I have no idea what a skinnamarink was, but I know that it was my favorite song to which I had memorized all key choreography. It went a little something like this:

Bear in mind this show ran 1984-1988 and then reran on Nick Jr. until 1995, so there was a seriously extensive spread of children who grew up with this show and skinnamarinky-dinky-dinked their little hearts out. As if that weren't enough, in 1998 the group starred in another show on TLC appropriately entitled Skinnamarink TV:

Please take note of the changes in music and characters, updated for the short attention spans of the new generation. These kids couldn't even put up with a few tuba notes, as their elephant had both a name (Ella Acapella) and functioning vocal cords. Back in our day, we didn't need fancy gimmicks. We didn't even need basic explanations. Those were simpler times, when a somewhat effeminate man and two flamboyantly enthusiastic women could just live with their mute elephant and their mysterious gang of drop-in children in peace.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sesame Street Celebrity Musical Guests

First off, thank you for your ongoing support, loyal readers. I am in a somewhat pain medication-induced state (read all about my exciting bicycle crashing adventures here), but I am here to honor my commitment to bring you your daily dose of 90s nostalgic goodness. What sort of a nostalgian (like a historian, but lazier and less reliable) would I be to abandon you and fail to quench your unending desire for childhood revisitation? A bad one, that's what. So, let's get down to business here.

Sesame Street is a long-running and impressive television enterprise. Not only is it valuable to children on an educational level, it manages to continually entertain adults with its subtle barbs and references to popular culture. The show boasts an incredible number of high-profile guest stars over the years, ranging from politicians to boy bands.

Most adorable, however, are those popular musicians who come to reprise their popular songs with new Sesame Streetified lyrics. You really can't help but love their capacity to belt out these tunes to a bunch of well-orchestrated puppets with such fervor and intent you'd think they were playing to a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden. Though some sing Sesame Street orignals, many take their most popular songs and tweak the lyrics to make them either educational or pertinent to the lives of cute fuzzy monsters.

While the child viewers probably think of Elmo as the celebrity and the musical guests as some no-name Elmo backup singers, older watchers can appreciate the mildly self-deprecating aww-ness of watching Hootie and the Blowfish warn of street-crossing safety.

Though you may have been far beyond your Sesame Street years when many of these aired, you can certainly enjoy them retrospectively for their celebrity value. For your pure viewing/listening enjoyment, I present a random but reasonably comprehensive compilation of 90s musical guest appearances on everyone's favorite pedgoical PBS puppet program:

Spin Doctors: Two Princes

In 1996, the Spin Doctors appeared on the show with a parody of their popular "Two Princes", conveniently re-titled "Two Princes". In the original song, the Spin Docs sing about a woman with a choice of two male admirers. If you're not familiar with the song, feel free to take a listen. Really, just go ahead now. In the more kid-friendly Sesame Street version, lead singer Chris Barron explains how Princess Zoe doesn't have to pick between two princely playmates but rather that they can all play together. To their credit, the monsters' celebratory dance moves during that extended solo are pretty impressive.

REM: Furry Happy Monsters

REM released "Shiny Happy People" in 1991, intended as an ironic loose translation of some obscure Chinese propaganda. The original video (pop-up version for your entertainment available here) was ironically unironic in its colorful, upbeat interpretation. Luckily, these political undertones were totally absent from the playful Sesame Street Version, "Furry Happy Monsters". The VH1 Pop-Up Video version notes that many fans believe REM hates this song as they never play it live, but obviously they must want to spread the joy in some capacity if they're willing to get this into it with puppets 8 years later.

Bobby McFerrin: Tweet in the Morning

I have to say, Hoots the Owl is one of the coolest puppets I know. Who knew owls were so jazzy and scat-catty? Scat-owly, I suppose, but now we're really just splitting feathers. 90s phenom Bobby McFerrin of "Don't Worry Be Happy" fame came to the Birdland club in 1991 to showcase his quirky percussive stylings. I have no idea what he's saying, but I would certainly be tapping my foot if it wasn't broken.

Aaron Neville (with Ernie): I Don't Want to Live on the Moon

I have vague recollections of owning a casette tape with this song on it, and loving it intensely even though I personally thought I could handle living on the moon for more than one afternoon. What can I say, that Ernie's a real lightweight. Especially on the moon. In all seriousness, it's a really pretty song. Also, they created a cool arrangement using a previous recording by the late Jim Henson and matching it up with Neville's harmony section.

Johnny Cash: Tall Tale

Johnny Cash appeared on the show a few times, seen above performing "Tall Tale" with giddy-up puppet Noel Cowherd in 1993. It's sort of a country song version of "opposite day". The clip really, really makes me love Johnny Cash. If I were a man, I would yearn for that deep, toneful, resonant voice. Back in the day, though, I was probably more preoccupied with coveting that cowgirl puppet's bolo tie. I'm into it.

Gloria Estefan: 1-2-3

Pretty much anyone who ever puts out a song with any counting whatsoever must be high-up on the list of preferred celebrity musical guests on Sesame Street. After all, it's incredibly easy to rewrite a song to be about counting when the original already conveniently features numbers in sequence. Well played, Sesame Street song reprisers. Well played indeed. Nice work on coming up with the word "Birdketeers", too. Those incredibly multicultural children in birdsuits are pretty awesome. Kudos all around.

Queen Latifah: The Letter O

Yes, she totally called those little puppets her safari sisters. I just love all of their turbans. It's been so long I actually totally forgot Queen Latifah even rapped, I'm pretty impressed with this. Mainly because that second hat she's sporting totally warrants a comparison to Abu the monkey from Aladdin.

Little Richard: Rubber Duckie

Little Richard is all kinds of crazy, but more fun crazy than scary crazy. Between this and his guest appearance on Full House, he earns major 90s children-entertaining points. That signature "Woo!" really adds appropriate emphasis to the Rubber Duckie song. And there's Hoots the owl again! Can't go wrong with Hoots. Hoots is the dude.

Goo Goo Dolls: Pride

I mainly included this clip because I find it heartwrenchingly adorable at the start when Elmo says, "Oh, hi Goo Goo Dolls!" It's really just spectacularly cute. This episode aired in 2000 so I was certainly far past my prime Sesame Street watching years and thus only recently discovered this clip. They reformulate their song "Slide" as "Pride". I just love watching these guys rock out to lyrics like, "You helped your mother bake a pie/You fell and didn't cry/You made your bed and said/Your ABCs".

Hootie and the Blowfish: Hold My Hand

Yeah, yeah, this clip is more recent too (also from 2000), but you may just have to deal with it. Hootie and the Blowfish were an inexplicable runaway 90s success and hence deserve our attention, even if this clip wasn't necessarily a part of our original formulative Sesame Street watching years. Unlike bands who capitalized on Sesame Street guest appearances at the height of their fame, these guys were clearly on the downslide by the time they reprised their song "Hold My Hand" to be about crossing the street safely.

And of course, though by the time these two groups were on the show I'd likely graduated to screaming in the front rows of their concerts and trying to catch the teddy bears they tossed during their stunt flying, I'll share these with you as a concession for you not judging that last confession:

Well, that's about all I have for you today. This post was brought to you by the letter V as in Vicodin.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Please Excuse This Interruption From Your Regularly Scheduled Children of the 90s Programming

A self-portrait minus the blonde hair and innumerable bike tire tracks up and down my legs

A quick explanation for the incredibly brief blog hiatus:

So, you know how when you're a kid, you really want crutches? Like, they seem really cool and you wish you could have all of the attention and cast-signing privileges awarded to your less graceful?

Turns out it's not quite as idyllic as I'd once imagined.

Let me set the scene for you. I'm bicycling in the Amish countryside with my parents (yeah, I did that, just deal with it) and I am really getting into it. I haven't ridden a bike since my ill-fated 5th grade arm-breakage, but I'd decided to give it another go.

As I'd become so astonishingly skillful at biking, I was far ahead and riding solo when I saw a small child of maybe 6 or 7 crying and struggling to keep up with his mom while biking. Like any self-entitled child of the 2000s, this allegedly innocent kid splats straight down in the middle of the path. Like any good conscientious and kind-hearted child of the 90s, I swerved in an effort to avoid running over him.

This was obviously a big mistake, resulting in 6 hours in the hospital, a broken ankle, and innumerable capsules of high-intensity pain medication. We're talking the hard stuff here. In my gimpish and unintentionally whacked-out-on-pain-meds state, I was unable to fulfill my duty of completing this morning's post.

As I am at the airport. Alone. On crutches. Can't walk. Giant bag. All sorts of fun.

Have no fear, though the use of heavy pain medication will ensue, I will be back in full blogging form later this week. Bye now, I'm off to butt-scoot up the stairs. No really, it's gonna be awesome. I appreciate your concern.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Parent Trap

Ah, innocence. Once upon a time, even our most troubled of starlets were just wee littles children struggling to break into the business under the crow-like watch of their obsessive stage parents. Yes, those were the days. When 11-year olds could be goaded and herded to open modeling calls and Jell-O commercial auditions, their parents seeking their vicarious big break. And we wonder why child actors grow up to have all manners of complexes.

Regardless of her current lot in life, back in 1998 Lindsay Lohan was a cute little befreckled redhead with a hell of a British dialogue coach. She starred in the ultimate suspend-your-disbelief-or-exit-the-theater-now movie, playing a set of intercontinental twins separated at birth. A remake of the 1961 original of the same title, The Parent Trap pushed the limits of reason with its endless array of uncanny coincidences. Though the film wasn't winning any medals for sense-making, it had a certain charm in its ludicrousness.

Lohan plays dual roles as Hallie Parker and Annie James, two ordinary 11-year old girls living on either side of the Atlantic ocean. Hallie lives with her single dad (Dennis Quaid as a totally believable DILF), a vineyard owner in Napa Valley. Annie lives with her single mother, Elizabeth (the late talented Natasha Richardson), a glamorous British wedding gown designer. Naturally, neither of the girls knows much about their mysteriously absent second parent, but conveniently has one half of a torn picture of the parent they've never met. I think we can all see where this is going.

Here's where things get a little dicey on straight-up believability. Miraculously, despite the incredibly vast physical proximity, both Hallie and Annie are sent by their respective caretakers to Camp Walden for Girls. In a series of none-so-friendly encounters, the two quickly become rivals, challenging one another to fencing matches and high-stakes poker games. You know, like all 11-year old girls do. The usual.

No one seems to say much about the fact that the two are absolutely, undeniably identical. Sure, the British one's got a stuffy long haircut and the considerably more with-it Northern Californian sports pierced ears, but other than that they're two identical girls separated by an accent. Not one of their friends or counselors remarks to their respective twin pal, "Hey, have you noticed that girl is your twin sister? Maybe instead of feuding, you two should make some effort to sort this whole thing out."

That would be too easy. Then again, the counselors seem notably absent from the film. I can only imagine the liability issues the camp's insurance company faced for lack of proper supervision. For such a reputable camp, the girls seem to
be pretty much on their own.

Continuing on this poorly-supervised theme, the camp staff becomes so unspeakably fed up with their feuding twin charges that they send them to (gasp!) the isolation cabin. Yes, that's right. The punishment at this camp is going to some podunk cabin with the person you hate to duke it out completely unsupervised. Oh, and you get to bring scissors and needles! Makes perfect sense, right? Good, I'm glad you're coming with me on that one.

After a freakishly long period of time without questioning their obvious physical same-ness, the two warm to one another and begin discussing their lives. They find not only that their birthdays are on the same day, but that their half-pictures of their respective mystery parent fit together to form a full picture. Who would've thought? I know I was shocked. A mischevious plan to switch places is quickly hatched and since no adults have stopped in to check on the two, they're able to get away with crazy shenanigans like cutting each other's hair and piercing ears in a horribly painful needle-and-apple manner.

Oh, and I can't leave out my favorite part in which Hallie has to master the handshake that Annie does with her butler. Did I not mention she had a butler? Because she's English, you see. In American movies they all have butlers. Anyway, the spectacular handshake goes a little something like this (performed by Hallie in disguise, who passes the butler test with flying colors):

Both girls do some careful stepping to try to fit in with their newly acquired parents, and generally do pretty well minus a minor misstep here or there. Okay, so Annie's fam is tad flabbergasted to hear her professional-grade assessment of the dinner wine, and Hallie's brood is marginally suspicious of her suddenly proper manners, but all in all things seem to be going pretty okay. That is until we meet the obviously gold-digging Meredith, the pretty young thing dad Nick is planning on marrying. Because in Disney movies we can't just let people make their own major life decisions, the girls decide this would be a great time for an intervention via the good ol' twin switcheroo.

The twins scheme that their parents will have to see each other during the exchange process and will obviously fall madly and deeply back in love. Children with separating parents, take note: just make your estranged parental units switch you with your twin from across the globe in a grand elaborate plan. It's a pretty airtight method.

The twins along with their house-help cohorts plan a recreation of their parents' meeting on a cruise ship. Everything goes swimmingly (boatingly?), with both remarking that they remain hazy on the details of their split in the first place. Unfortunately for Hallie and Annie, their parents don't immediately reconcile their disparate lives in a wave of passionate impulse but rather more mundanely decide the kids can go visit each other from time to time. Obviously a second-tier backup scheme was necessary to clinch this reunion, so the twins refused to tell their parents who was who until they took them on a family camping trip.

The vile Meredith tags along and mom Liz backs out at the last minute, making for an interesting crew. The girls of course do everything in their power to completely and totally piss her off:

Meredith gets so angry over their antics that she demands Nick choose between herself and his daughters, an ultimatum that obviously expels her from the family. Naturally, Elizabeth and Nick get back together, and everyone lives happily ever after. Even the butler and housekeeper, who despite their mildly ambiguous respective sexualities also end up engaged by the end credits. Altogether now: awwww.

Sure, the movie's not necessarily the most realistic story in the world, but it delivers the fantastical goods in pure Disney fashion. The all's-well-that-ends-well predictability makes the movie satisfyingly unbelievable. Overall, it's a fun film, but more importantly it provides us with a handy time capsule of little Linds so we can remember her as she was: cute, freckly, and according to the following interview, loving the attention. Yikes. That certainly sounds like some dark foreshadowing:

Friday, July 17, 2009

Nickelodeon GUTS

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the 90s were a simpler time. An age before text messaging, tweeting, and facebooking. A time when nations put aside their difference to battle in vaguely athletic harness-dependent events. A time when the greatest feat a kid could aspire to was to climb a giant heap of neon-lit scrap metal. A time when Mike O'Malley was still young and good-looking and not forever irritating me with his incessant plugs for Time Warner digital cable.

Yes, those were simpler times. Oh, how my friends and I yearned to be contestants on Nickelodeon GUTS. We were even willing to overlook that gross foamy yellow mouthguard we'd be required to wear. How's that for compromise? All we wanted was for British referee Mo to describe us by our chosen nicknames (I was partial to The Raging Tornado myself) and to describe our position on the coveted leaderboard.

Was that really so much to ask?

Unsurprisingly, this ambition never became a reality. Unless you count my boyfriend and I dressing up as a GUTS contestant and Mo respectively for Halloween. But I suppose you probably wouldn't, would you now.

There was nothing more I wanted in the world than to become one of these famed child athletes, immortalized for posterity in VHS form:

Unfortunately for me, the correct answer to "Do-do-do-do you have it?" was a resounding no. For three lucky kids per episode, though, this was their chance to shine. Literally. That snow that pelted them from the Aggro Crag was super sparkly.

Nickelodeon's GUTS ran from 1992-1995, with endless rerunning throughout the decade. The show was a sort of kid-based takeoff of the then immensely popular American Gladiators. Three kids competed against one another, clad respectively in their representative color of blue, red, or purple. Before each event got under way, individual contestants were interviewed (later, they aired pre-taped segments) in a little feature they liked to call "Spill Your Guts!"

The athletic events themselves took place in the Extreme(!) Arena, and were sometimes loosely related to actual sports. More often, they were elaborate tests of athleticism made possible through the use of harnesses, mouthguards, and well-placed safety nets. There were obstacle courses, wave pool events, and all sorts of extreme(!)-named events for the players to compete in. Mike O' Malley narrated, saying ridiculous things like, "He took to the water like a porpoise!" Then, for the official stuff, we cut to Mo.

Mo was a British referee/officiant who explained the leaderboards, points, and made official rulings on if a kid's toe was over the line. She also got to say official-sounding phrases like "Players will start at the sound of my whistle". First placers earned 300 points, second earned 200, and third earned a measly 100. Luckily for those kids, there were only 3 competitors, meaning everyone gets a medal.

Our good pals Mo and the then immensely handsome Mike O'Malley. Am I alone in this childhood crush or what?

Of course, these events were fun on their own but nothing in comparison to the awesomeness of the ultimate culminating event. The Aggro Crag (succeeded by the Mega Crag and later the Super Aggro Crag) was a mountain-type structure constructed of what we can only assume were dangerous sharp-edged deconstructed Nickelodeon sets.

Contestants were to activate the "actuators", which really just meant they were supposed to turn on some crappy touch light as they bounded up the almighty Crag. You have to admit, "actuators" sounds way cooler. Each third of the Crag was swathed in colored light corresponding to each player's representative color. This sounds like a pretty easy if completely unnecessary task, but the show threw in some special effects-type obstacles to sweeten things up. Avalanches, glittery snowstorms, flashes of lightning, and even nuclear flying crystals. Yep, that's right: nuclear flying crystals. Just like climbing a real mountain.

The first kid to the top of the Aggro Crag received 725 point, most often nullifying all of those other pointless preceding events. There was an eviable awards ceremony in which the competitors received their inevitable medals and the gold medal-winner was given a piece of the Aggro Crag. Admittedly, this plutonium-esque hunk of plastic looked pretty dissimilar to the Crag itself, but it was still arguably the most coveted piece of neon green plastic around.

To illustrate the desirability of taking home a piece of the crag, do a little Google search for something along the lines of "buy a piece of the aggro crag". On eBay, the site even comes up with alternative search suggestions for you, implying that numerous people search for "piece of the crag" and then follow that up with "GUTS aggro crag." These now-grown ups are still dying to get their hands on a piece of the crag. You know what they say: if you can't beat 'em, buy 'em.

In 1994, Nickelodeon produced an Olympic-style spinoff of the show entitled Global Guts, pitting kids from different countries against one another in a battle to prove superiority at Extreme Dodgeball and Wave Pool Kayaking. It's a competitive field, I know, so these segments were pretty tense. Kids came from places like Israel and Kazakhstan to prove their worth and earn a piece of the almighty Crag (by now, in Super form). Not only did this did the international competition add a new element to the show (particularly when we battled the forces of former communism on the rock climbing wall), the winner got to do a sweet flag-flying victory lap as well. Talk about doing your country proud.

Sure, Nickelodeon brought back a version of it as My Family's Got GUTS in 2008, but the era had passed. For the children of the 90s, that is. Those of us with as-of-yet-unrealized dreams of bringing home a piece of the Crag will suffer forever from unrequited semi-athletic accomplishments. Unless one of you happens to find a piece of it on eBay, that is.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Toy Story

It's tough to imagine a time when computers didn't reign over every and any thing. Though the computer animation-less past seems distant, there was once a time before we bowed down to our benevolent microchipped masters. While now computer images are pretty ubiquitous in animation, just fifteen years ago it was a new and innovative technology seeking to revolutionize animation as we know it. Oh, and to tell us stories about cowboys and astronauts. Mainly the cowboys and astronauts thing.

While now Pixar is a booming enterprise churning out hit after adorable, heartwarming computer animated hit, back in the early 90s they were still in the startup category. Sure, it had been around 10-odd years or so, but it had yet to give us a full length feature film. In a decade that gave us Disney gold like Aladdin and The Lion King, expectations for animated movies were riding particularly high.

Luckily, the good people at Pixar delivered the goods. Pixar garnered some attention through their Oscar-winning short Tin Toy, a computer-animated film featuring a poor little abused tin soldier named Tinny. Tinny hides from his frighteningly abusive baby master and finds a slew of other quivering, humorously traumatized toys. Thus began the initial spark of the idea for Toy Story, which was at first set to star our pal Tinny. In the likely case that you've never seen the 1988 Pixar short film, here's your chance:

Pretty impressive for 1988, no? Sure, everything's a little wobbly and the action's a little choppy, but overall a valiant triumph for our friends at Pixar. Once the deal was signed to develop a feature-length film, producers updated their initial conceptions of the characters and Tinny morphed into the flashier astronaut Buzz Lightyear. All seemed to be going swimmingly for the Pixar folks.

Until, of course, big bad Disney came in and crushed their adorably lifelike computer-animated dreams. The script was going through a too-many-cooks scenario, suffering through innumerable rewrites and changes. In 1993, Pixar presented to Disney series of storyboards backed by a rough soundtrack. The work-in-progress featured seriously hostile and bitterly sarcastic incarnations of Buzz and Woody. Not exactly the kind of characters you'd go home and beg your parents for expensive video games of their further exploits.

Needless to say, Disney hated it. In fact, they really, really hated it. So much so that they put the kibosh on production. After some begging and pleading, the Pixar team was given an ultimatum: turn this film into something that will put butts in the seats or you're out of the game.

Original storyboard panel from Toy Story. We can only assume this frame depicts the original a-hole Woody.

Disney was also clear about its aims as financial guardian angel: the movie better be a serious cash cow. Disney was seeing falling ticket sales and saw computer animation as a potential vehicle to rev up their sales. One of Disney's major requests (and criticisms of the first draft) was that the movie appeal to both children and adults. Back at the drawing board, Pixar developed quirky little personalities for a slew of toys baby boomers (read: the people buying the tickets) would relate to: GI Joes, Slinkys, Mr. Potato Heads, and so on. With a renewed sense of purpose, Pixar set out to get back on track with the project.

Scrapping much of the initial work, Pixar's animators and writers worked diligently to make the movie stop sucking so horribly. Enlisting the virgin voice talents of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, the movie began shaping up. By the time of its 1995 release, the film had been sufficiently desuckified and far surpassed Disney's expectations by becoming a runaway success.

After so many reformulations, rewrites, and re-animations, Pixar somehow managed to pull it off. The movie told the story of Woody, a walking, talking cowboy toy who reigned supreme as favorite toy in Andy's bedroom.

Unfortunately, someone a bit more heroic was lurking in the wrapped birthday gifts. Woody is displaced by Buzz Lightyear, a newer, flashier astronaut toy. Really, much flashier. I mean, the guy had lights. How do you even compete with that when your main claim to fame is a pull-string with a few crappy recorded phrases? As you can imagine Woody becomes incredibly jealous, aiming to eliminate Buzz and once again reclaim his throne as top toy.

Meanwhile, horrifyingly terrifying toy torturer kid next door Sid is blowing up army men and reconstructing doll/robot hybrids. Buzz vows they will give him his comeuppance, but the other toys are justifiably skeptical. I mean, did you see Sid? That kid is scary, man.

Woody and Buzz get lost on the way to a family outing to Pizza Planet, but manage to stow away in a delivery truck. Buzz mistakes the claw machine for his spaceship and the two are stuck inside. They are unluckily captured by the sadistic Sid, and forced to bear their fate with plastered-on painted grins.

As you can imagine, hilarious antics ensue and the pair are forced to buddy up to battle Sid Vicious and his evil dog Scud. Buzz finds out he's just a toy, not the real Buzz Lightyear as he'd originally imagined. Yadda Yadda Yadda, heartwarming bonding and a daring rescue mission later, the toys are again safe and sound in Andy's house. A happy ending, minus a new puppy with untapped toy torturing potential.

The film was an enormous critical and financial success and spawned an extremely popular sequel. So popular, in fact, that its financial input outstripped the original's by over $100 million. Now that's popular. And lucrative! Color me impressed, then computer animate me so I can get in on some of this cash.

Though Pixar has since moved on to new things, our Toy Story pals are far from forgotten. In fact, they will be returning to a theater near you sometime around summer 2010. Here's the trailer to hold you over until then. They're hyping it up a lot, which is hopeful. This extremely long-awaited sequel comes so late in the game that Andy is headed to college. My, how the computer animated years fly by.

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