Monday, October 19, 2009

Home Alone

No real-life fantasy can even begin to compare to the glory of parent-free burglar-thwarting amazingness that is Home Alone. Even the most imaginative of children lack the capacity to dream up a scenario so perfectly aligned as to leave you both completely free to wreak havoc on your own home as you see fit and act as the hero. In child imagination-run-wildland, it's pretty much the perfect crime.

Many of us have a soft spot somewhere in our hearts for Christmas movies. I'm pretty sure it's congenital. In the case of Home Alone, however, Warner Brothers gave us the ultimate one-two punch: a heartwarming family Christmas movie with a heaping helping of general kid mischief. The film's iconic nature was no accident; it was written and produced by cinema auteur extraordinaire John Hughes. The man who gave us classics as National Lampoon's Vacation, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Sixteen Candles found his most financially successful project in Home Alone.

The film also acted as a star vehicle for Macaulay Culkin. While Culkin had acted in previous movies such as Uncle Buck, it was Home Alone that ultimately gave him the elite status of bona fide breakout child star. Home Alone largely hinged on Culkin's solo scenes, in which his well-timed humor and general adorableness won over audiences worldwide. Kids everywhere wanted to be his character Kevin McAllister. We got our chance, too, when Nintendo released the Home Alone video games as part of the fast-growing franchise.

Home Alone revolves around the bustling McAllister family, a large clan who gathers to fly together to Paris for the Christmas holiday. In the chaos and stress of transporting the entire family from the house to the airport in the morning, the McAllister's completely forget about Kevin who has been banished to the third floor as punishment for his behavior at the previous night's dinner. Upon receiving his punishment, Kevin wished that his family would disappear. Incredibly, he wakes up the next morning to find that his wish is reality. Not a bad deal, overall, when you're an eight-year old kid yearning for a little space.

Almost immediately after boarding the flight, Kevin's mother Kate (played by one of my personal favorites, Catherine O'Hara) muses that she is certain she's forgetting something. After ticking through her mental checklist, it finally occurs to her that she's left her eight-year old son alone at home. Oh well, at least they remembered to lock up and set the alarm, right?

Kevin's totally reveling in his new found freedom, indulging in junk food, jumping on the bed, and generally causing destruction and mischief within the confines of his lonely house. His carefree parentless lifestyle is interrupted by the Chicago Police, upon whom his parents called to ensure his well-being and general not dead-ness. As if that weren't enough to shake things up, he also discovers that the infamous "Wet Bandits" burglar duo is headed his way on a rampant crime spree. Talk about your bad luck.

Kevin ingeniously devises a defense system made up of elaborate booby traps. Sure, it's a little violent, but come on, these guys are criminals. We don't see little Kevin bopping his mom on the head with a hammer or anything. As long as it's directed toward the bad guys, a little violence is A-okay in setting an example of angry revenge for children. Really. It's a commonly understood rule. Regardless, Kevin must be some kind of genius to come up with this stuff. Here's a little comically soundtracked montage someone (not me, of course) put together on YouTube of the general anti-robber mechanisms:

Needless to say, that stuff looks painful. It was all pretty slapstick, though, and in good fun. We never really thought these bad guys were going to shoot up the place, leaving a mangled Kevin in their wake. We knew our hero was safe and sound, and probably more dangerous than Harv and Marv (our merry burglar men) combined.

Simultaneous to all of this anti-burglarizing, there's also a subplot involving allegedly creepy neighbor Old Man Marley. The kids in the neighborhood are convinced he's offed his family, so imagine Kevin's surprise that he's actually a lonely old man painfully estranged from his son. Marley and Kevin become unlikely friends, and Marley even swoops in and rescues Kevin from a rather inextricable burglar-induced jam. All this sweetness and togetherness leaves Kevin ready to reunite with his parents, hopeful for their return.

On Christmas morning, Kevin wakes to find his mother and later his whole family returning just in time to celebrate the holiday together. Magically, there's no evidence of the break-in (save for one of the intruder's flashy gold teeth) of the family's none the wiser to Kevin's solo antics. Marley and his son reunite per Kevin's insistence, and all in all, it really is a wonderful life.

It wasn't the most probable of plot lines, but it sure did leave an indelible impression on moviegoers. The film became one of the highest grossing ever, showing you don't need flashy cinematography and Oscar-worthy acting to be a resounding success. All you need is a mischievous little boy, some injury-prone robbers, and one semi-creepy but inevitably lovable old man, and you've got yourself a winner.

Friday, October 16, 2009

90s TV Shows Based on Young Children's Book Series

There are only so many ideas in circulation at one time, so sometimes we've got to work with recyclable materials. Luckily for children's television programming producers, there was a wealth of ideas available in the juvenile literary world. Armed with familiar and much-beloved characters, these shows were near-guaranteed successes as children were eager to see their favorite storybook stars yukking it up on the small screen. Here are just a few of our once book-bound friends who made the leap from two-dimensional picture to, well, okay, two-dimensional picture. But, you know, with sound and animation.


Who better than an anthropomorphic talking preteen aardvark to teach children life lessons? I really can't think of any superior alternative. Well, unless maybe you also threw in some monkey and rabbit pals. That would be the cherry on top of the talking animal role model cake.

Marc Brown began writing Arthur books in 1976, publishing the bulk of his cutesy aardvark-centric stories throughout the 80s and 90s. Brown was especially adept at slipping in a convenient pro-literacy and library friendly agenda, skyrocketing the books to popularity in schools and public reading settings. There's nothing a library loves quite as much as a book that loves libraries. It's just really the most perfect fit. I mean, for God's sake, the main character's last name is Read. How unsubtle can it get?

While the books had been enjoying a wave of popularity for a couple of decades, 90s kids were treated to an extra special supplementary means of Arthur enjoyment. In 1996, the Arthur TV series premiered on PBS, the Mecca of educational children's television entertainment supported by Viewers Like You. PBS did not disappoint in their interpretation of the new book classics, providing a series that was enjoyed by children and adults alike. Even those kids who veered into the gray area of a little too old for kid's shows often watched the show in secret, delighting in the clever wit and catchy reggae theme song performed by Ziggy Marley.

The books were delightful to children throughout the 80s and 90s not because of their exciting, fantastical nature, but because Arthur was just a regular third grade boy--er, aardvark--who suffered the same daily humiliations, irritations, and apprehensions as the rest of us. His sister DW was a total pain in the ass, he has a baby sister and a playful puppy, and deals with the daily dilemmas common to third grade Suburban life. Not to mention the show pulled guest voice actors like the Backstreet Boys, Joan Rivers, and Alex Trebek. Not bad for a show aimed at 8-year olds.

The Magic School Bus

What kid doesn't love a happy trip to imaginationland? A vehicle to get there is always useful, so when author Joanna Cole offered us a magical schoolbus, we were all more than willing to jump on board for some good ol' fashioned imaginary field trips. Plus the TV series was Canadian. How much more inviting and welcoming can you get?

As was the standard for 90s educational television program, the cast was composed of one-off token members representing a virtual rainbow of animated diversity. We had the Jewish kid, the Black kids, the Irish kid, the Mexican one, the Chinese one...pretty much if you can name an ethnicity, one of its well-spoken young representatives had a reserved seat of the Magic Schoolbus. The group was led by the eccentric frizzy-coiffed Ms. Frizzle, voiced by Lily Tomlin. We followed our bus-bound friends as they entered the human body, blast into space, or through the water cycle. Oh, and did I mention Danny Tamberelli voiced the Jewish kid and the Mexican kid was Jason from Mean Girls? I'm not really what else you could ask for from a kids' show. Oh, except maybe a theme song performed by Little Richard. I know I'm sold.

The Busy World of Richard Scarry

There's nothing quite like a warm fuzzy value-laden story starring anthropomorphic animals to convince parents to let the TV babysit their kids for a half hour or so. I'm pretty sure if I were a parent on the fence about letting children's TV programming play nanny, seeing that little worm driving an apple car would undoubtedly push me over the edge. It was fast-paced enough to keep children entertained, featuring three mini-episodes in each show. Since kids are not exactly known for their ability to sit still and patiently enjoy audiovisual media, there was more than enough material to satiate them.

The stories focused mainly on the Cat family, made up of Huckle, Sally, Mother, and Father. For no good reason, they cohabited with Lowly Worm. You know, because everyone knows that cats and worms are natural compadres. We also had police officer Sargent Murphy, the chronically unemployed and banana-desperate Bananas Gorilla, and the dumpster-diving friendly trashman Mr. Fixit. It was an eclectic bunch, but they were admittedly chock-full of talking animal wisdom and values. If nothing else, it sure beats what passes for children's programming these days. Send one of those Yo Gabba Gabba critters up against Lowly Worm and his applemobile and I'd put my bets on wormy.

Little Bear

Speaking of tedious sanctimonious children's programming. He's cute and all, but he just has so many feelings. The books were pretty sweet, though no one would declare them overly creative. With animal characters aptly named Duck, Owl, Hen, Cat, Mother Bear, Father Bear, and Little Bear, they weren't exactly breaking new ground here. For no reason at all, there was also a little girl named Emily and a skunk named Marshmallow. Just go with it.

Like The Busy World of Richard Scary, each Little Bear episode featured three vignettes. Our titular character is a curious shoeless six-year old little boy bear who provides the childlike perspective. The show has a sort of old-fashioned feel, though it premiered in the 90s. Our characters hand-knead bread by candlelight, so perhaps they're not the most relatable characters for kids. Then again, they're also bears, so we can probably just let that go.

The World of David the Gnome

Based on the children's book The Secret Book of Gnomes, Daivd the Gnome is a Spanish television series later dubbed in English and narrated by our pal Captain von Trapp. You know, from the Sound of Music? Anyway, the show introduced us to the curious world of gnomes, a miniature community of half-foot tall pointed-hat sporting little people who lived in forests, farms, or gardens. These little guys were hundreds of years old and full of a fun type of gnome-specific wisdom that only children can appreciate. Because looking back, I think I'm just too jaded to appreciate this kind of stuff anymore. Back in the day, though, with my thriving imagination, I was all over this stuff.

Our buddy David the Gnome (Tom Bosley!) is a forest-dwelling gnome in the medicinal healing mold, doling out acupuncture and hypnosis to his gnome neighbors. He's got a wife named Lisa, his best friend is a fox, and his family is forever being pestered by local trolls. At the time, it made perfect sense, believe me. The show had environmental undertones, with the gnomes charged with picking up after us selfish and uncaring humans. Damn humans. We're so cruel and we have no sense of appreciation for primary colored pointed hats.

The ideas may not have been original, but most of the stories translated pretty well to television. The shows also had the effect of easing our parents' guilt of parking us in front of the TV with the hope that it might inspire us to someday pick up the book itself. So what if all we came out with was an encyclopedic knowledge of children's TV theme songs? The point is that they tried.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Britney Spears

Oh, what a different a decade can make. Reference Britney Spears ten or so years ago, and you conjured up an image of a teen cultural phenomenon, a gorgeous fresh-faced midriff-baring schoolgirl with a cascade of beautiful golden hair. Reference Britney Spears now, and you're taken to a different place entirely. Images come to mind of an out-of-control out-of-shape washed-up train wreck chowing down on Taco Bell barefoot in a gas station in a bathroom somewhere with an unfortunately bald head. Sure, she's managed to turn herself back around and re-reinvent herself thanks to the help of an incredibly adept mangement team and conservatorship, but the original image has been tarnished as we watched our favorite pop princess spiral into the void.

Funnily enough, whenever Britney Spears tickets go on sale nowadays, I hear squealing teenagers everywhere on the radio begging for tickets. It's as if a new generation has rediscovered our old Britney, and that period of lapsed judgment simply never happened. The Britney these kids know, however, is a very different Britney than the ones we knew. Once upon a time, girls everywhere yearned to be Britney. While you'd be hard-pressed to find a teenybopper today willing to trade places with Brit, in our day it was essentially the dream of every mainstream girl who'd ever stood in front of the mirror lip-synching in her tied-up Catholic school uniform.

Hearken back, if you will, to a time when Britney was just a fresh-faced chipper little brunette thing, bouncing around with Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake on The Mickey Mouse Club. It didn't get any squeakier clean than this. The show had been popular in the 50s and 70s, but a revitalized 1990s version brought new life to the concept. Though she auditioned at 8, Britney landed a role on the show at age 12.

Yes, Britney and Justin, the way we'd like to remember them...together.

Of course, I'm getting ahead of myself. For all the anonymous gossip blog hater commenters claiming Britney to be a talentless shill, we've got to remember that though she may have been famous for her dancing she was first noticed for her singing talent on Star Search at the age of 10.

The stage seemed set for Britney to take off in a major way. In '97 she briefly joined the dead-end girl group Innosense. Get it? no. sense? These 90s music managers sure were clever. Here's Brit and the girls from Innosense, in case you can't remember. This probably was after their stint as musical conspirators, but it's still adorably vintage Brit Brit.

Just a few months after joining Innosense, Britney was signed to Jive Records, the company responsible for misguidedly catapulting manufactured and highly managed groups like *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys to atmospheric fame. Britney was cute, innocent (after all, this was pre "not that innocent" era), and had that all-American personality that endeared people everywhere to her sparkly smile and Southern accent. She was more than poised for fame, though no one could have anticipated what happened next. I do imagine her managers were pretty pleased with it, however.

In 1998, she released "Baby One More Time", becoming the first ever single released by an unknown new artist to hit number one. The video was late-90s pop at its finest, cementing a Britney Spears brand based on tongue-in-cheek naivete and latent sexuality. In it, Brittany donned pigtails, a tied-up oxford shirt, and a borderline indecent plaid schoolgirl skirt, giving dirty-minded old men everywhere a troublesome jailbait Lolita fetish and forcing Catholic schools everywhere to invest in additional security. I'm also not too proud to admit I coveted those feather pigtail ornaments with a near-religious fervor, buying what essentially amounted to a Britney Spears starter kit at Target and dutifully lacing them through my pigtails at all available opportunities. And that scene where she's got the pink sports bra, the white pants, and the half-pigtails? I yearned to replicate this look more than anything, much to the chagrin of my midriff-abhorring parents.

Britney became something of an overnight sensation, with her fluffy bubble-gum pop hits blaring from middle schooler's discmans (discmen?) across the world. Coupled with a racy Rolling Stone cover shoot, Britney Spears had solidified her semi-contradictory role as virginal teen queen and forbiddenly sexual temptress.

This image was further compounded by the fact that Britney jumped aboard the current pop sensation trend train in declaring herself a virgin, a puzzling statement in the wake of her suspiciously physical and potentially cohabitational relationship with childhood pal Justin Timberlake. Now the idea of their public declaration seems utterly laughable, but at the time it probably seemed like a fairly smart publicity move for their ever-more famous starlet. I suppose it is possible they weren't having sex. They did, after all, show up to an event wearing this grotesque denim-on-denim-on-denim set of matching ensembles. I imagine it was some form of fashion-driven sexual behavior deterrent. It's really the only explanation.

In 1999, Brit's follow up single "(You) Drive Me Crazy" was another successful record, though not on the scales of her debut "Baby One More Time." The song was featured on the Melissa Joan Hart/Adrian Grenier teen movie vehicle Drive Me Crazy.

Britney even did a crossover promotional appearance on Hart's sitcom, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. It was, well, magical.

She was nothing short of a rapid-fire hit-making machine, a year later releasing "Oops I Did It Again", a red-jumpsuited, hair-extensioned cheesefest complete with a spoken interlude chock-full of Titanic references. You just can't make this stuff up. No matter the low level of substance, it didn't deter girls everywhere from yearning to learn these dance moves.

Back in the day, Brit wasn't above poking fun at herself. Observe in this 2000 intro to her hosting gig on Saturday Night Live as she makes fun of rumors surrounding speculations over a purported boob job.

Of course, she couldn't keep up her good-girl image forever. Itching to break out of her schoolgirl shell, Britney pushed the limits with a slightly edgier image in her next album. She cemented this move with a sexy MTV Music Video Awards performance featuring dancing nearly-naked with a boa constructor. Nothing says "I'm not a girl, not yet a woman" like dancing with reptilian life.

Itching to get into film, Brit gave us a cameo in Austin Powers in Goldmember:

Followed by a slightly tragic foray into acting with her supposed movie star-making vehicle, Crossroads. Really, I don't care how big a Brit Brit fan you are. It's totally painful.

Holy crap! That is totally Justin Long, about to have sex with Brit's character Lucy n the trailer. I will hold back the mocking, though, I met him once at a craps table in Vegas and he was totally nice even though we were totally drunk. From what I remember, that is. Hence, I'm going to let it go, Justin. Just this once.

Britney stayed famous as ever, but things took a turn as she ached to break the shackles from her tightly managed life. She rebelled, dating and then marrying and then divorcing Kevin Federline, though not before popping out a few wee ones. We all know what happened next, though I'd prefer to gloss over that part. That's neither the Brit I thought I knew nor loved, and I'd prefer to just watch it on E!'s "Britney: Fall From Grace" than recount it myself.

Luckily, she's made a major comeback, though she remains a bit tarnished in reputation from her various past exploits. An MTV documentary can only reinstate you so far. Regardless, her new album is possibly her most successful since her debut, and it's likely she's more famous than ever. Love her or hate her, you've got at least admire her team's well orchestrated comeback:

Is it embarrassing to admit that as I type this, I have that bottle on my desk next to me of that Curious perfume with the atomizer she uses at the beginning of the video? C'mon don't judge. Just think of it as a crossover tie-in promotional item.

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