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.
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.