WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
I've been a casual fan of the quirkrock of They Might Be Giants for years. As a band, they even seem to be mapping their output to my own lifecycle: They were there when my own oddball personality was shaping, through my college years (with wonderfully strange albums such as Flood and Lincoln), and now they're here with some funky kid songs to help shape the impressionable minds of my young daughters. My oldest daughter—at just under 5 years old—is a huge fan of the band's 2002 hit No!, which contains some genuinely smart, knee-slapping kid fare that nostalgic adults can equally enjoy. I'm thinking of such terrific track-listing standouts as Fibber Island, Robot Parade, Where Do They Make Balloons?, and The House at the Top of the Tree. I can't tell you how often we've listened to that CD and how much joy They Might Be Giants have brought to this kid.
Which is why it pains me to say that not much on the band's latest children's-music effort, Here Comes the ABCs, approaches the brilliance of No!. With this DVD effort, the band has moved away from the realm of music-only CDs and entered the multimedia arena of animation, flash-edited still photography, and even silly live-action puppetry. The unfortunate aspect of this production is that the quality of the music itself has dropped a notch or two in favor of a lot of effort put toward a barrage of low-budget, C-grade animated imagery.
They Might Be Giants—made up of a couple of Johns, John Flansburgh and John Linnell—have corralled a group of animators and puppeteers to create a celebration of the alphabet in sight and sound. The idea is fascinating, and I'll admit that I was very excited to experience the end result, which promised traditional, kooky They Might Be Giants cleverness on top of a fun learning experience. But even after three or four listens, Here Come the ABCs comes across as half-hearted. There are some standout songs here—notably, Alphabet of Nations, Pictures of Pandas Painting, and Fake-Believe—but a lot of the rest can best be described as filler. I might have forgiven some lackluster song efforts if the accompanying imagery had been spectacular, but the low-rent, few-frames-per-second, paper-cutout look of the whole affair just isn't terribly involving. And even though the animation is often crude, you'll long for it while watching the live-action moments, particularly those involving puppets, which are hopelessly silly—and not in that great, weird They Might Be Giants tradition.
I'm also concerned about some of the editing in this presentation. I'm constantly on the lookout for ADD-style editing in my children's entertainment, believing kid brains to be highly vulnerable to harm from spastic imagery. Several of the songs here suffer from what I call MTV syndrome, flashing images at young eyes with little thought to the effect on wee minds.
At the main menu, you're presented with a few options: Play All, Alphabet Songs, Letter Songs, and Bonus Songs. I'll get to the Bonus Songs later, but for now, let's walk through the Alphabet Songs and Letter Songs. About a dozen quirky little songs comprise each section. After you spend some time watching these individually, you'll grasp that the best way to watch this DVD is with the Play All function, for a couple of reasons: First, the songs are so short that they're best experienced as part of a larger thematic whole. Second, you can plainly see some sloppy editing at work when you choose to watch individual songs.
1. Here Come the ABCs: John and John Say Hello—A quick introduction to the disc, with the Johns portrayed by silly puppets.
2. Alphabet of Nations—A short international geography lesson with the catchy chorus, "Zimbabwaaaaaaay!" The animation has a cheap, paper-cutout look, but the visuals and the song are catchy.
3. I Am a Robot—Here's a rather static recitation of the alphabet by an awkward, electronic-voiced giant robot. The animation is blocky and poor.
4. Pictures of Pandas Painting—This one's a fun, nonsensical piece of rhythmical animation that proves quite interesting. It's got probably the most engaging, painterly animation of the disc, but that's not saying a whole lot. Another catchy song.
5. Can You Find It?—Another winner, this one an interactive short that asks kids to find hidden letters in the onscreen imagery. That being said, this song depends on its accompanying animation.
6. Introducing The Vowel Family—More silly puppets introduce the next song.
7. The Vowel Family—This short piece is cheap-looking and involves rather dumb live-action puppets. The song is pretty fun, but it calls the letter "Y" a vowel, when I always understood it to be a consonant (except in certain scenarios).
8. A to Z—Here's another recitation of the alphabet, similar to I Am a Robot but this time with nonsensical stills.
9. Letter Shapes—This piece finds a bunch of live-action magicians creating the shapes of an animated alphabet.
10. Alphabet Lost and Found—This fun song offers engaging animation and music. It's all about a news flash involving words that are losing their letters. Good stuff.
11. I Am a Robot (Type B)—A quick reprise of a lackluster effort. I would rather have seen a reprise of one of the cool songs.
12. John and John Introduce Who Put the Alphabet in Alphabetical Order?—15 seconds of silly puppets.
13. Who Put the Alphabet in Alphabetical Order?—Here's a good female-fronted song combined with silly live-action puppets, as in Vowel Family.
14. A to Z (Type B)—More still imagery, along with another alphabet recitation.
15. Introducing ZYX—15 seconds of silly puppets.
16. ZYX—This one's got some psychedelic outer-space animation, and the band sings through a mildly fun, if short, backwards recitation of the alphabet.
1. E Eats Everything—This cool little tune will stay in your head for a while. It's about letters with appetites, and specifically about what each one likes to eat. The animation seems fairly well suited to the song.
2. Flying V—This one's about seeing the letter V in everyday life, such as in the shape of birds. The animation, again, is simplistic.
3. QU—Here's some weird live-action footage of the Johns (I presume) walking through the city with giant Q and U shapes on their heads.
4. Go for G—This catchy song is accompanied by some particularly jittery animation that I'm not sure is good for wee brains (not that any video is, really, but you get the idea).
5. D&W—Well, here's a crazy, nonsensical barrage of sound and imagery.
6. Fake-Believe—This good song is accompanied by black-and-white photography mixed with static imagery.
7. Letter/Not a Letter—This songs presents kids with a series of letter and symbols and asks them to distinguish between the two. Some cute kids' voices here.
8. Rolling O—This instrumental song floats atop animation of an actual O rolling everywhere.
9. LMNO—Another flashily edited piece involving both photography and animation. The song reminds kids that LMNO is actually four letters, not one.
10. Introducing C Is for Conifers—More of those damn puppets.
11. C Is for Conifers—This is one of the better, more educational songs on the disc, and it's accompanied by some fun, if simple, watercolor imagery.
12. Fake-Believe (Type B)—This version of the song is played atop live footage of the band performing the song. This is one of my favorite moments on the disc.
13. D Is for Drums—More footage of the band, focused on the drums, with those puppets rapping.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Disney Sound presents They Might Be Giants: Here Come the ABCs in a good full-frame transfer of the film's 1.33:1 video presentation. Animation always has an advantage in this medium, and—true to form—it looks pretty darn good in this case. Colors are bright and engaging, and detail is spot-on. My only real concern is with the amount of aliasing on my 65" set. If you have a larger display, you're going to find these little digital jags annoying.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The PCM 2.0 soundtrack offers a fine stereo presentation of the material. I didn't notice an incredibly open soundfield across the front, but the music comes across with gusto and even a sense of fun. Bass is deep and tight, and vocals are clear and clean without falling prey to high-end distortion.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The disc offers a section entitled Bonus Songs, which includes two extra videos. The first is for the band's excellent song Clap Your Hands, which originally appeared on They Might Be Giants' previous children's effort, No!. Unfortunately, I think this song and video—which offers similar still imagery and simplistic paper-cutout-style animation—bests anything on the main portion of the DVD. The second bonus song is Higglytown Heroes, which is the theme song for the Playhouse Disney animated show of the same name.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Not up to the high standards of No!, Here Come the ABCs is a multimedia effort that perhaps suffers from lack of focus. There are some catchy songs here, but nothing particularly memorable, as with They Might Be Giants' previous effort. The animation and other imagery on this DVD is low-rent and frustratingly edited. The concept of this DVD is wonderful, but the execution seems haphazard.