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Critic's Notebook

The Amazon pilots (Part 2): Children's shows

April 25, 2013|By Robert Lloyd | Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • The puppet-animated "Tumbleaf" is one of six pilots for children's shows produced by Amazon Studios.
The puppet-animated "Tumbleaf" is one of six pilots for children's… (Amazon Studios )

Amazon's TV "pilots" (see my previous post and this relevant website) come in two flavors: grown up comedies, most of which betray basic-cable (and even premium-cable) values in terms of content and language, and children's shows, which, conversely, are largely aimed at the youngest of the young and contain a mandated educational component.

We'll take the small-fry series first. They are meant to be realized in a number of forms -- animation, puppet animation, puppets, CGI and live-action -- but are presented for the most part as rough-sketch, storyboard-like "animatics," with each series containing a snippet or two of what the show would look like if it is fully produced. (Only the 2-D animated "Sara Solves It" is in a completely finished state.)

As a group they skew toward the cute and comforting (even as they center on children, or child substitutes, who are allowed or even encouraged to roam free without adult supervision). They are sing-songy and pedagogically repetitive, with encouraging catch phrases ("Let's get creative!" and "I figured it out" and such), and on the whole are perhaps too obviously meant to be Good For You. Children need structure and familiarity, but anarchy and noise and strangeness are good for them too.

PART 1: Amazon 'TV Pilots' are set to fly

In no particular order:

"Sarah Solves It" comes from Carol Greenwald ("Arthur") and Angela Santomero ("Blue's Clues"); Santomero is also behind the Amazon pilot "Creative Galaxy." Computer-animated in 2-D, it's the only of the kids' pilots that looks finished; the look is colorful, flat and thick-lined (reminiscent a little of PBS' "Word Girl"). The opening image of a busy New York-type street suggests an urban funkiness it'd be nice to see more of, the big city being as much a wonderland as Wonderland. The rest of the episode takes place inside the apartment building where Sara lives with her little brother Sam; interiors integrate number shapes -- for it is a math show -- and a talking elevator who gives occasion for ciphering. In the pilot, the siblings must find a pizza party (a lot of going up and down floors) and recover Sam's doll (ditto) from Victor Vector (math again), a lonely bully. Lively, not too sweet. I liked it.

Santomero's other series is "Creative Galaxy," a participatory arts show hosted by Artie, an enthusiastic animated green alien, accompanied by Epiphany, his parroting sidekick-pet. Artie's got some pom-poms ("pom-poms make me excited!"), which, with a pair of pipe cleaners and a couple of buttons, he works up into the semblance of a bug. (Will children feel disappointed when their own pom-pom bugs refuse to come alive?) All the muses will get their due, should it continue, but painting takes the pilot, with trips to the Museum Planet and Painting Planet, where Artie and you will learn about pointillism -- you probably did not see that coming -- from a talking paintbrush. "Pointillism is an amazing idea!," cries Artie. "Pointillism lights me up!" It is all in the service of spicing/sprucing up the library that Artie's architect mother has designed, whose bare walls are driving away the customers, because "Blah's not good!" The show itself, contrariwise, is all exclamation points; there were times I wanted to ask it to go into the next room and play quietly.

"Tumbleaf" is by Andrew Hodges, of the Burbank-based stop-motion house Bix Pix Entertainment; the fully realized snippets of puppet animation seen here are quite rich and beautiful and magic-worldy (though the animatics are not without their own charm). "Numinous" would not be out of line. Fig is a little blue fox who lives in a beached shipwreck with a tree growing through it; it is full of colorful little puffy things that make the kind of noises you would expect a colorful little puffy thing to make. He goes about with a pet caterpillar named Stick who rides in a sort of holster strapped to his arm, and every week will have to figure out what to do with whatever object materializes in his "finding room." Here it is a kite, which he endeavors to learn how to fly. There are chickens who make pancakes and a porcupine who knits. (She already has the needles.) The finale, in which, wearing a winged suit of yarn, Fig takes flight himself, is not good physics, but it does get Stick out of a tree. Appealingly casual in tone and a little bit strange, it is, all in all, my favorite of the six.

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