Back in the days of snail mail, sometimes catalogs would randomly show up, and as a kid, I would open all of them looking for fantastic toys that I knew I'd never get. One of the toy lines with an incredible catalog was Playmobil. There's something unusually fascinating about attention to detail in terms of toy accessories, and Playmobil's elaborate range of playsets managed to trump even LEGO with the inclusion of hundreds of tiny true-to-life props. Police sets came with tiny stop signs, cones and fire extinguishers. A family camper set packed in two bicycles, a table and dishes. Firemen came with orange cones, stop signs and road flares. Who knows why tiny versions of real-life objects is appealing to kids, but all this stuff looked pretty awesome to me.
As it turns out, the Playmobil brand is alive and well, and they're clearly looking into the same alternative content options that have been serving LEGO pretty well for the past few years. Playmobil might not lend itself to a branded video game as well as LEGO and Batman go together, and it seems unlikely that the Playmobil figurine holds the same cultural cachet as LEGO people do (I don't know, since I don't have kids, and I swear I'm no longer looking to purchase any Playmobil sets). Nonetheless, the CG adventure Playmobil: The Secret of Pirate Island is hitting DVD, in the hopes of spawning a new generation of fans.
Terrible comedy and overacting are almost a given in entertainment aimed at kids this young, and there are no established "rules" for what constitutes a Playmobil cartoon, but The Secret of Pirate Island is a pretty easygoing, colorful film that doesn't try too hard. It's a little late, but this swashbuckling adventure is clearly designed to capitalize on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (the pirates face off against a bunch of skeletons, and an octopus takes the place of the kraken). Unsurprisingly, it's a simple story with simple moral lessons, but it's a friendly, gentle substitute for audiences too young to watch the Johnny Depp movies.
Looking at the cover, the quality of the animation seems questionable, but in motion, the plastic texture of the Playmobil characters is reasonably appealing. Obviously, a movie is just a big, long advertisement for the toys, but this particular effort doesn't reek too strongly of cash-in -- no obvious CG recreation of official Playmobil sets. References for grown-ups in the program border on non-sequiturs: Captain Gruff's parrot is named "Seabiscuit", there are multiple "big bad voodoo daddy" references, and a four-piece band designed after four different famous musicians. The band sings three songs, the latter two of which are pretty good and feature the cleverest direction the film has to offer. Lesson-wise, the film teaches kids not to steal, to play together, and to overcome their fears. Amusingly, the film also seems to subtly teach them not to annoy their parents, respect their elders, and enjoy doing chores. On some of these counts, the message isn't all-encompassing: the pirates are allowed to steal, because they're pirates, and the fear that the young girl conquers is heights, which some parents may worry about their own kids trying to "conquer."
There's one feature presentation on this disc, available in "interactive" and choice-free "Captain Gruff's Favorite Movie" (49:42) versions. On one hand, it seems like part of the appeal of a DVD for a parent is that they can switch it on and focus on something else for a little while rather than sitting down and showing the child how it works, and kids just might get antsy having to press buttons. However, the interactive version adds another half-hour of content when you make the "wrong" choices (i.e. those that don't progress the story; the scenes loop around back to the same choice so the viewer can choose again), and each branching point is helpfully placed at the chapter stops, so it should be easy for kids to figure out.
The Video and Audio