Jim Henson's The Song of the Cloud Forest and Other Earth Stories:
Lest ye Henson fans deem it appropriate to stone me, I'll remind you that I'm old enough to remember when the Muppets only starred in the occasional Television Special - Dr. Teeth and Zoot were my favorites. But this Earth Day tie-in release of four bottom-rung late '80s and mid-'90s stories from the Henson factory sets a bad standard for half-hearted compilations of substandard stuff. Two half-hour episodes of Animal Show with Stinky and Jake, plus the title half-hour and an eco-themed episode of Fraggle Rock will only confuse and alienate your children.
The Song of the Cloud Forest fits neatly into the well-meaning eco-message as told to who really knows what age group, but that group will probably respond unfavorably anyway. There is such a group of DVD programs, isn't there? The Jim Henson production company employs its standard beguiling puppetry to pound home a message of conservation, but it's a heavy-handed sermon with few laughs and little to engage viewers either young or old.
At first a bunch of rainforest animals get together and start jamming out. Their cloud forest song is cool, despite the janky video image. But then a pair of 'uprights' (humans) enters the jungle, and the vibe gets ruined. These uprights have good intentions, to capture an endangered frog for the purpose of mating, but they're unsure of their methods. "What else can we do?" the male of the pair asks.
What, indeed? How about a weird, scary song/video (that looks to have been directed in 1986) about uprights munching the forest? Or perhaps a maudlin song wherein our frog hero admits that he's given up hope. Not right yet? What about a brief encounter with a terrifying 'elder' (a crocodile-like creature) who exhorts the frog to follow his heart? Or maybe we can just let Henson Productions preach dully for 25 minutes, essentially wrestling with middle-class guilt/conservation issues until we're told to simply let Mother Nature do her job. Like that will work.
This is simply a weird Lefty effort sure to depress and traumatize youngsters, and maybe best suited for a classroom full of third graders. While I emphatically agree with the message, my four-year-old didn't get it at all, and we'll probably not revisit the cloud forest until next Earth Day.
Both Animal Show with Stinky and Jake episodes ("Owl & Frog" and "Kangaroo and Frog") highlight why this is one of those programs that has disappeared from cultural literacy. Fact is, it's weird, clunky, and not very funny. Set up like an evening infotainment news show, this program features Jake (a polar bear) and Stinky (a skunk) introducing strangely edited bits of animal footage and grim songs all focusing on an animal theme. Stinky and Jake's patter seems forced - which is a tough aesthetic to master, making animal puppets uncomfortable to watch - while their punch-line-deficient jokes seem aimed at a much older crowd - a less forgiving crowd. Manic introductions segue into clips that sometimes have nothing to do with the subject, they just spastically bounce from animal to bug to bird, inducing headaches. Then weird songs appear, sporting awkward melodies and tenuous educational value. Although the "love nature" message is laudable, it's as if the Animal Show production team took the Great Space Coaster to a satellite filled with nitrous oxide, where they concocted this mess.
Lastly, what's an ad hoc DVD comp without an episode of Fraggle Rock, another Henson production that has as little to do with the other stuff on this disc as Law and Order has to do with The Biggest Loser. Yes, the "River of Life" half-hour episode finds the Fraggles beseeching the Silly Creatures to stop poisoning their water supply - a pretty obvious child-friendly metaphor for an anti-water-supply-poisoning message - but that, and the use of puppetry, is where the similarity ends. The Fraggles were after my time, but what I've seen of them terrifies me. I like their look, I'm scared of their cave. I hate the Silly Creatures and have always been disturbed by Henson's human-sized monster puppets (Sweetums, et al). But I will not abide a program in which the heroes have a relationship with a near-demonic pile of talking trash.
In all, only Henson fetishists will have any interest in this pretty weak attempt at a very positive message. So please, love and take care of the earth, but leave this random collection of near junk on the shelf.
All four of these half-hour programs are presented in the old-school broadcast TV standard ratio of 1.33:1, and only Stinky and Jake comes out looking close to current broadcast standards. Cloud Forest suffers from harsh colors, clumsy super-imposed footage, and other seeming processing miscues. From a transfer standpoint, things are OK considering the source, but unremarkable. Stinky and Jake manages to tone down the colors some, and presents an acceptably detailed, relatively sharp image - about as good as mid-'90s TV should look. My very limited Fraggle contact on DVD seems to indicate that source materials just aren't great for this show. In this case, the image is fairly soft and lacking in detail, though colors are rich. Generally, the program illuminates what's bad about old shot-on-video TV, particularly during the Fraggle theme song.
Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo is perfectly fine, with no readily apparent deterioration in the source audio, which is mixed at a good balance between music and dialog. Things are easily discernible , even without a terribly broad dynamic range. Add a pretty inert stereo mix, and you've got nothing special, but nothing terrible either.
Extras are limited to the utilitarian, including Closed Captioning the Kid-Friendly Direct-Play system (read: slap it in and walk away), and a Trailer Gallery.
Wanting to let us all know how important Earth Day is, a bunch of kids' DVD manufacturers decided to litter store shelves with petroleum-based plastic discs like this one, featuring four limp Jim Henson half-hour shows about nature and stuff. Fraggle Rock drops an episode decrying water pollution, Animal Show with Stinky and Jake stinks up the joint with two anonymous and irritating animal episodes, and The Song of the Cloud Forest is just plain weird. Your kids will neither enjoy nor really understand this disc, and you, providing you don't slap it in and walk away, will just be angered. Skip It and take a walk in the forest instead.
- Kurt Dahlke
~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com