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I shall never forget the day that my family acquired a rather elegant clock. For years, my parents had longed for a grandfather or cuckoo clock-anything that would regularly announce the time in an auditory manner. The result, a timepiece that consistently chirped the hour, delighted me and thoroughly annoyed my younger sister. After confiding to me that she "hated" the sound, we turned the cheerful chime into a game. Every hour, we competed to see who could cry, "Cuckoo!" first. Our competition ultimately became the basis for much of daily life: "If I win the cuckoo game three times in a row, you owe me a cup of tea".
Oh? What did you say? You would like to know why I am apparently reviewing a cuckoo clock when I ought to be reviewing GRANDPA'S MAGICAL TOYS? Well, perhaps I simply have an extensive imagination. Perhaps, to a mind that has been melted by poorly-penned literature, a VHS case resembles a wall-mounted timepiece. You can't necessarily know that!
Or perhaps, dear reader, my childhood fondness for the Wee Sing films played a crucial role in creating the reviewer who sits before you. Certainly, I am a perfectionist who knows and cares very little about "typical" university experiences. Why, if I attend a study group, I haven't as much time to write a ten-page paper and assure myself that it is entirely free of grammatical errors. Never mind that my instructor cares little for grammar and requested only three pages; I must do everything correctly! Out of this perfectionism, no trace of freedom could possibly have emerged had it not been for the exposure that I received to certain films produced by Wee Sing, a company specializing in child development. After acquiring GRANDPA'S MAGICAL TOYS at the age of three, my sister and I frequently plunged ourselves into the sheer delight that constitutes pure, unhindered silliness.
THIS CALLS FOR MUFFINS!
As this wonderful work of imagination opens, Peter and his two friends are visiting the former's grandfather. Upon introducing Sara and David to dearest Grandpa, the children ask to view Grandpa's myriad toys. The possibilities for play are endless; how could a group of children possibly resist a clown, a sailor, and a small merry-go-round?
However, the children are not merely in the toy room to explore. Rather, they have a mystery that must be solved. Grandpa has lost a very important key adorned with several lovely jewels. While attempting to recover the key, however, the children meet with an unanticipated yet exhilarating adventure. It all begins when Punchinello, the clown, winks at Peter. At once, the children take on the size of small toys and the formerly inanimate playthings take on distinctive lives and personality traits.
Throughout the remaining forty-five minutes, the children encounter nearly every imaginable form of entertainment. As they help a British sailor to create a clapping rhythm, sing along with some Scottish bagpipes, and jump rope with a Little Dutch Girl, the children learn the importance of friendship and teamwork. Along the way, the children encounter the Muffin Man and a personified cookie jar. Even the ball and the merry-go-round take on human qualities, inviting children to play, dance, and generally abandon anything save the all-encompassing activity of fun. Each character exhibits unique foibles; while the Muffin Man believes that every celebratory situation calls for muffins, the Dutch Girl is constantly concerned with the relative position of her ribbons. Intermittent appearances by a cuckoo who cannot tell time but always whines about not being consulted add consistent yet charming entertainment to this masterful film. Yet, play cannot master all difficulties; what of Grandpa's lost key?
SAY, SAY, O PLAYMATE
Can you possibly imagine a childhood without music? Certainly, any moment without music would be tragic; yet, it often seems that youngsters are particularly at risk of being traumatized if they are not exposed to constant melody. In order, then, that children might experience stability through instrument-cloaked poetry, two remarkable women developed the Wee Sing series. Each video contained an entertaining yet educational storyline, a potent dose of wholesome kindness, and verse after verse of childhood songs. These lyrical diversions, universally known either as "silly songs" or as Jubilant Orations for Youngsters (JOY), constitute the most important sections of GRANDPA'S MAGICAL TOYS.
As Peter and his friends arrive, Grandpa greets his guests with a decidedly formal song. "Good Morning" is a carefully-formulated, well-mannered greeting couched in the simplicity of an upbeat children's song. I am impressed by the manner in which the creators of Wee Sing accomplished two apparently incompatible goals-that of entertainment, and that of education in the art of social skills.
"Punchinello" features the titular clown and is essentially a song that encourages mirroring. Do you, from the fading book of childhood, recall a page describing the fundamentals of following the leader? If so, you understand the premise behind "Punchinello". The children sing a little challenge to the clown: "What can you do, Punchinello, funny fellow?". They then follow Punchinello's lead, after which little exercise they choose another individual to play the role of leader. This is an excellent song for teaching children to work and play together!
Have you ever wondered about the origins of "A Sailor Went to Sea" and "Long-Legged Sailor"? Like most nursery rhymes, these now-charming tunes must have originated in some oceanic truth. Why, for example, did "a sailor [go] to sea, sea, sea", but see only "the BOTTOM of the deep, blue sea, sea, sea"? Could it be that, sometime in antiquity, a young man went to sea in search of adventure but became endangered during his quest? What about "Long-Legged Life"? As children, we are taught what may appear rather tongue-twisterish to a preschooler: "Have you ever, ever, ever in your long-legged life / Seen a long-legged sailor and his long-legged wife? / No, I've never, ever, ever, in my long-legged life / Seen a long-legged sailor and his long-legged wife". Are we to assume that this was a nineteenth-century commentary on the marital status of sailors in general? Or are you, perhaps, listening to the words of a highly-literal English major who is in grave danger of analyzing the implications of a nearby roll of label tape? You know, there are infinite possibilities for that...
Whether or not the two aforementioned songs carry significance, they are quite entertaining for young children. Particularly when accompanied by a clapping rhythm, these songs are excellent learning tools. They may be used to teach cooperation, improve coordination, and strengthen multi-tasking skills. In order to sing this song effectively, one must clap in accordance with the song's rhythm-a challenging yet captivating feat for young children.
"The Muffin Man" introduces a pastry-bearing gentleman who is purported to live on Drury Lane. Each child introduces the Muffin Man to his companions until they are all able to sing, "Now we all know the Muffin Man... / Who lives on Drury Lane". Again, this is a worthy way of teaching formal introductions.
Next comes a rather insubstantial rendition of "One Potato". Do you remember that game? "Let's see who wins this piece of candy," you might say before "potato'ing" everyone until all were tagged "out" save your best friend. All right, I am sure that you can all tell that I find the game unfair-particularly when more can be accomplished through sharing than from putting others down. Be that as it may, though, I do not believe that I would be impressed by this rendition even if I did consider the game virtuous. Performed by the Muffin Man, the entire song is sung in a grating and generally unkind tone.
One can disregard this soggy song, however, for the next little tune deserves ever so many accolades. "Pretty Little Dutch Girl" is the exquisite little story of a "pretty"-or, should one say, "flirtatious"!-Little Dutch Girl who has a boyfriend from the land of Jell-O. This is quite the fantastical song, as the Dutch Girl's boyfriend has "a cherry for his nose", but it is so very captivating that even adults have a tendency to consider the song long after the piano has ceased to play it.
There then follow a series of jump-rope rhymes-"Dutch Girl", "I Love Coffee", "Mabel, Mabel", and "Miss, Miss". Sadly, I never mastered the art of jumping rope; I am not entirely certain as to why, save perhaps that my energy was channeled into causing letters, not muscles, to fall into a coordinated rhythm with one another. Be that as it may, however, I nevertheless found the rhymes interesting for their content. "Mabel, Mabel", for example, may be used to teach children to perform a common household task. "Mabel, Mabel, set the table / Just as fast as you are able," the song suggests. Notwithstanding the fact that the word "quickly" should be substituted for "fast", the song effectively demonstrates the protocol for laying a table with all the necessities of life-except, of course, for freshly-grated cheese.
"The Farmer in the Dell" is one of those universal, chain-of-command songs that deserves the attention of every toddler. In case you have no recollection of this timeless tune, a farmer takes his wife, who takes a child, who takes the nurse... Although I always enjoyed this song, I found myself wondering from an early age how a rugged, down-to-earth farmer could afford to hire a nurse. And was this nurse a nanny in the British tradition, or-as my three-year-old mind had it-was the nurse a medical assistant? Why would the child require an RN? Or, if this were actually a nursemaid, why did the child's farmer father not care for him? Surely, surely I am not the only toddler who ever entertained such notions!
"Did You Ever See a Lassie?" reflects a surprising amount of authentic detail. Accompanied by the bagpipes and sung by two obviously Scottish children, this nursery rhyme is simply classic and lends the film a distinctly Scottish flavor.
For years, I have equated "Looby Loo" with "Michael Finnegan". In essence, both songs are repetitive to a fault and should not be ranked among those songs considered acceptable for children-or, for that matter, adults. I am surprised that the family dog does not begin howling when these redundancies are allowed to attack a group of innocents. This considered, I am sure that you can anticipate my opinion regarding "The Hokey Pokey". Although the song appropriately assists children in identifying parts of their bodies and differentiating left from right, I never cared for the song and quickly became bored with it. To objections that I obviously do not recall what it was like to be a child, I must reiterate that I recall vividly the first time I ever experienced the harp at the age of two. I recall "The Hokey Pokey" all too well, and the toys that I generally found as a diversion from that song.
"Qui a pris les biscuits de la boite de biscuit?" In case your French is rusty, a rough translation renders this accusation: "Who took the biscuits from the biscuit tin?" Or, in American English, "Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar?". Although Wee Sing's version conforms strictly to rules of English grammar, the fact that the song has been translated into French should demonstrate its universality. Premise: The cookie jar is empty, and I did not steal the cookies, so [insert name] must have taken them! How many times have we accused one another of such pastry-prowling? Never fear, though, for Mr. Cookie Jar comes to the rescue and sets everything to rights, explaining that no true purloiners have been on the premises.
"Roll That Red Ball", "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe", "One, Two, Three O'Leary", and "One, Two, Three A-Twirlsy" involve much participation from a ball that temporarily takes on the human quality of wanting to play. These little games might be average were it not for the most phenomenal instrument. Although I cannot identify it with any degree of certainty, it seems that these rhythmic songs are nevertheless accompanied by a faint electric harp. How this is possible, I cannot explain; suffice it to say that the producers of Wee Sing materials are simply gifted in blending traditional songs with very unique instruments.
Taken out of context, "The Merry-Go-Round" could easily be somewhat frightening. This experience in brevity describes a delightful ride... until the merry-go-round collapses. Rather a bizarre sense of humor, wouldn't you say?
"Hambone" combines portions of "Hush, Little Baby" with an overwhelming quantity of nonsense for an upbeat and generally whimsical song. Despite what might appear to be overtones of a traditional lullaby, this song shares only words in common with the traditional song. "Hambone" is upbeat but incomprehensible, resembling something that Dr. Seuss might pen. For some reason-perhaps because fantasy and realism have a propensity for clashing-the song always frightened and disconcerted me.
"Playmate" artfully closes this film on the note on which it began: it is essential to remain young at heart. The song invites one's friends to play and to be "jolly friends forevermore". What an eloquent way of summarizing this film's entire message!
COOKIE MONSTER WITHIN WEE SING!
Certainly not! Although I never heeded Sesame Street as a youngster, I do know that the two cannot be combined. I am also aware, however, that a scene featuring the cookie jar can become rather monstrous for those who are unprepared for it. From the echoing depths of a container entirely void of dessert, there issues a deep and terrifying voice explaining that "no one stole the cookies from the cookie jar". Although Mr. Cookie Jar is quite helpful, my sister always believed that he was "mean" and was deeply distressed by him until the age of seven or eight. It seems almost a non sequitur to suppose that a cookie jar might be scary, but his one certainly is.
While we are on the subject of separating silver from dross, it is important to mention that the magical element is stronger within this work than it is within certain of the other Wee Sing videos. While magic is secondary to education in WEE SING TOGETHER, for example, entertainment seems to take priority with this film. The result is a film that provides instruction on friendship, teamwork and cooperative skills, sharing, rhythm and the resulting gross motor skills, etc. However, this film does not have as its basis preschool academia; colors and numbers are not discussed, and shapes and ABC's lie forsaken at the bottom of Entertainment's well.
DRURY LANE, UNITED STATES!
Throughout its wonderful efforts, it seems that Wee Sing has striven for accuracy in all of its storylines. The exception lies with the overtly American Muffin Man, who apparently lives on Drury Lane. Now, I had always believed that Drury Lane was located in London, so why is Mr. Muffin Man American? For that matter, why must the sailor be British? Ought not the roles to have been reversed? An American sailor and a British Muffin Man would have been so much more realistic.
CHARM WITHOUT CHAOS
While other Wee Sing videos demonstrate typical, American playtime or gentle, ladylike moments, this film lies somewhere between the two extremes. Throughout my repeated viewings, the word that always strikes me is "European". From the British sailor to the Scottish lassie and laddie to Grandpa's German accent, this entire work is filled with European elegance. Formal introductions, old-fashioned toys, and other small details complete this quaint, nostalgic world.
In a previous review, I suggested that certain of the Wee Sing videos employed sound and visual qualities that likely would not have been acceptable during the 1930's. Although this film was produced in 1988, only three years after he original Wee Sing video, quality has dramatically improved. The actors seem quite professional-though, it must be noted, most are still in obscurity. Perhaps that is the beauty of Wee Sing; the performers' mission is not to gain celebrity status, but to teach children the fundamentals of silliness.
However, the children's dialogue is not of impeccable, cardboard quality as it is in WEE SING TOGETHER. Rather, language is realistic and special effects are somewhat less low-budget. Although I'm sure that Hollywood can provide far better effects in 2009 than the 1988 film provides, they are at least acceptable.
For those interested, a complete list of the cast follows:
Susan Shadburne: Director
Pamela Beall: Creator
Susan Hagen Nipp and Susan Shadburne: Writers
Francisco Reynders: Grandpa
Kevin Hageman: Peter
Daniel Strauch: David
Sharene Mackall: Sara
Joel Morello: Punchinello
Jeff Ekdahl: Sailor
Micheal Steven Long: Muffin Man
Jacque Drew: Dutch Girl
Jennifer Moore: Maggie the Rag Doll
Tim Gero: Minkey Monkey
Richard Boland: Crayon
Ross Huffman-Kerr: Jack in the Box
Emily Sahler: Skunk
Elaine Low: Squirrel
Ruby Burns: Beaver
Caysie Torrey: Lassie
David Lovelin: Laddie
Susan Barthell: Cuckoo (Voice)
Sam A. Mowry: Farmer and Cookie Jar
FINDING GRANDPA'S KEY...
Or, as the case may be, locating this film-either of these may be done at weesing.com. Although my sister and I received this as a gift on VHS many, many moons ago, it is now available on DVD. While not as educational and quite a bit more magic-oriented than certain other Wee Sing videos, this is still a worthy purchase that I recommend to anyone seeking musical entertainment for children ages 2-8.