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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Children's Classics Collection
Children's Classics Collection
Paramount // Unrated // May 5, 2015
List Price: $16.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Jesse Skeen | posted July 22, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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Paramount/CBS has curiously released these late 70s/early 80s TV specials in both four separate packages and this four-disc set which can be obtained for about half the price of purchasing all four of them separately. Together they play as a mixed bag, but writer/lyricist Romeo Muller (best known for the Rankin/Bass specials) and supporting voice roles by versatile actor Robert Ridgely are what they all have in common.

The first disc, The Strawberry Shortcake Double Feature, consists of "The World of Strawberry Shortcake" which was her first special from 1980, followed by 1981's "Strawberry Shortcake in Big Apple City." (These were previously relased on DVD from Allumination Filmworks.) Strawberry Shortcake was created at American Greetings and after initial appearances on greeting cards became a line of dolls, toys and animated TV specials. At the time I instinctively gagged every time a Strawberry Shortcake-related commercial came on TV as the whole thing was just incredibly "girly," but 35 years later I've finally become secure enough to look at the franchise more objectively. Strawberry (voiced by Russi Taylor, who I was surprised to learn has been the voice of Martin Prince on "The Simpsons") and her friends live in a Smurf-like land where almost everything is related to fruit and desserts made from it- Strawberry herself lives in a shortcake house, and other inhabitants include Blueberry Muffin (Joan Gerber) and (one of the few males in the universe) Huckleberry Pie (Julie McWhirter). (The gimmick with the dolls was that they were scented with their respective fruit flavors, though surviving dolls all seem to have lost their scents by now.) Though they all have a human-like appearance, we see in the first special that they're very small, possibly even more so than the Smurfs- one shot puts Strawberry next to a matchbook for comparison. Like the Smurfs, they have a villain in their midst- the Peculiar Purple Pieman of Porcupine Peak (voiced by Robert Ridgely), a baker who wants to steal the fruits of Strawberryland for his own use.

"The World of Strawberry Shortcake" is a rather simple introduction to the characters and their world- the sun (voiced by Romeo Muller) serves as our guide and narrator who looks down upon the happenings. Strawberry's birthday is coming up and everyone else is planning a surprise party for her. The problem is that while they're off setting the party up, Strawberry thinks that everyone has just run off and forgotten her birthday completely (which seems to be a common problem in these types of stories! If you're thinking of doing a surprise party for one of your friends, please for their sanity designate at least one friend to distract them so this doesn't happen!) Meanwhile the Purple Pieman develops a scheme to take all of the land's strawberries. "Strawberry Shortcake in Big Apple City" is a more satisfying affair, where Strawberry gets to fly from her small town to the big city and compete on a TV cooking show. She meets several new friends there, but it turns out the Purple Pieman is the show's other competitor and has a few dirty tricks up his sleeve to make himself the winner. I remember the big-box VHS tape of this from Family Home Entertainment in many of the first video rental stores I visited.

Yes, the atmosphere of both of these is irrepressibly sunny and sweet, but the passage of time has been rather kind to them. Both shows are relatively slow-paced compared to the kids' fare of today. The animation isn't exactly Disney quality, but at least it was still hand-drawn without help from a single computer chip. I will say that the characters' voices are just a bit annoying, with high-pitched and nasal tones, and Strawberry Shortcake herself cries far too much! OK, I can sort of understand her crying when she thinks everyone's forgotten her birthday, but she also bursts into tears when she arrives in Big Apple City and finds there's been a snag in her hotel reservations! Perhaps Strawberryland could benefit from a good counseling service that teaches them how to handle such problems without going into panic mode. I don't know why the Purple Pieman has to be so mean either, it seems it would benefit everyone if he bought or traded for the fruit instead of stealing it. But maybe I'm just over-analyzing things?

I do remember from the early 1980s that these types of shows were blamed for the decline of children's television- the main criticism was that they existed more to sell toys and merchandise than simply entertain kids. Being one who can usually spot product-placement a mile away, I didn't really see much wrong with these however as nothing screamed out as being something you should go out and buy when the show was over. Still I heard that these specials were first offered to the big 3 networks but turned down by them mainly for resembling program-length ads, leading them to syndication on independent (pre-Fox network) TV stations instead. Strawberry Shortcake has since gotten a facelift and appeared in newer direct-to-DVD and cable specials, where many have said she looks much less wholesome than her original self here. I can't help thinking now that a live-action adaptation from Sid and Marty Krofft back in the early 80s would have been something to see, and they probably could have pulled it off!

Disc 2 brings us just one special, "Peter and the Magic Egg" which first aired for Easter 1983 and also subsequently released on Noel Bloom's Family Home Entertainment video label. This is a rather bizarre story of a husband and wife who own a farm in Pennsylvania, but are threatened with losing it to the cyborg-like Tobias Tinwhiskers (voiced again by Robert Ridgely, the Purple Pieman from the previous entries) unless they can pay off their mortgage- he's so rich and powerful that he already owns the rest of the town. Suddenly a baby sent by Mother Nature herself appears in the henhouse with a note attached to him saying to keep him and name him Peter. Over the next year he grows one human year every month so that he is twelve years old (and voiced by Al Eisenmann) the next year and a big help on the farm, also teaching the animals to talk (because what's an animated Easter special without talking animals?) He then gets another visit from Mother Nature, telling him that the farm can be saved if they can provide enough Easter Eggs to the Easter Rabbit. I hadn't heard of this special until seeing it here, the animation isn't remarkable and the most significant attribute is that it was narrated by Ray Bolger. It's an interesting curiosity for sure, but little more than that.

Disc 3 is "Dorothy in the Land of Oz," which has a strange history. It originally aired in 1979 as "Thanksgiving in the Land of Oz," but the following year had all references to Thanksgiving removed so that it could be shown any time of the year (although one Christmas song remains in it.) While there have been a number of forgettable animated Wizard of Oz knock-offs that can't hold a candle to the MGM classic, this one wisely picks up after that story and sticks to the subsequent books and characters in the series. Dorothy (voiced by Mischa Bond) starts out back on her farm in Kansas and runs into the Wizard (Sid Caesar, who also serves as narrator) once again and accidentally gets flown along with her dog Toto back into the Land of Oz (because this likely would not have been as interesting a special if they had just stayed in Kansas.) She soon meets Jack Pumpkinhead (Robert Ridgely yet again!), a character from the later "Oz" books. He tells her that while there's no wicked witch to worry about this time around, the land is now threatened by Tyrone the Terrible Toy Tinker (turning out to be also voiced by Robert Ridgely when he appears) who is gathering an army of toys to bring to life and take over the Emerald City. Of course Dorothy has to come up with a way to stop this and travels to his castle with Jack, the Hungry Tiger (Frank Nelson) and mechanical man Tic Toc (Joan Gerber).

This one has potential, but with its short running time just doesn't have enough of it to do very much, and a few minutes of that are wasted with an unnecessary song from the Wizard back on Earth halfway through. Still the animation (looking rotoscoped) is above average for a TV production of that era. Disney would do more justice to the later "Oz" stories in the live-action feature Return to Oz in 1985.

Finally we have the most worthwhile entry in the set, the Puff the Magic Dragon Triple Feature, featuring three prime-time specials with Burgess Meredith voicing the title character and Peter Yarrow (from Peter, Paul and Mary who sang the original song) having a hand in the music and production of each. All of these aired on CBS in place of its usual shows paired with another half-hour animated special and were treated as events in the era before cable and home video were commonplace.

The first from 1978 (where Peter Yarrow also has a small voice role as the father), I remember watching on its first airing and looking back at it now it was rather heavy for a children's special. All three specials deal with rather disturbed children, with Jackie Draper in the first (voiced by Philip Tanzini, who still does voice work today) being trapped in his own little world and unable to speak a word! Doctors tell his parents that there is basically no hope for him so he's just left to sit alone and silent in his bedroom- until Puff comes along. He first draws and cuts out a clone of the boy and names him Jackie Paper (keeping with the original song lyrics) and brings the silent Jackie's soul into him, bringing him to life and telling him that he can help him by taking him on a journey where his real self would be afraid to go. Fashioning a boat out of Jackie's bed, they set sail for the magical land of Honalee (the song lyrics again), and Jackie faces a number of challenges (including an evil pirate voiced by none other than Robert Ridgely) that help him bust out of his shell. However they make a devastating discovery when reaching Puff's homeland, which ALMOST made me burst out crying when I first watched this with my parents- I restrained myself only because for some reason I was embarrassed for them to see me cry at anything on TV (the only other time I remember this happening was near the end of Charlotte's Web which had aired as a two-parter in the 70s, if you've seen that you probably know the moment I'm talking about.) I won't give this part away but it's discussed in the review of the single disc; to a five-year-old it really is shocking. (Nowadays I cry quite regularly about things on TV even in front of my parents, but for completely different reasons.)

In the end this special stuck with me but I never got to see it again until picking up a likely bootleg DVD from the now-defunct EastWest label at a dollar store (which was obviously transferred from a VHS tape.) This special looks like it has had at least one other questionable DVD release but this one is the real deal. While it might have been based on a popular song, it has an incredible amount of sincerity which so much later children's TV (such as the included Strawberry Shortcake specials) are sorely lacking. I would be very surprised to see any current "kidvid" production take on the subject of a child trapped in his own world.

A follow-up special, "Puff the Magic Dragon in the Land of the Living Lies" was aired in 1980. While not as heavy-handed as the first, it still takes on the serious issue of a girl named Sandy (voiced by Mischa Bond heard as Dorothy in the previous "Oz" special) who deals with her parents' separation by habitually lying. One of her lies is that a dragon ate her homework, prompting Puff to appear and stop time in order to take her on another important journey to the Land of the Living Lies, "where lies do go when ye world finds them out." Its population includes Baron Munchausen, the world's greatest liar (and voiced by, you guessed it, Robert Ridgely) and the boy who cried "wolf!" Another lie ends up with Sandy being arrested by Pinocchio and put on trial, where she eventually has to tell the truth to set things right again.

Finally there's "Puff and the Incredible Mr. Nobody" from 1982, where Terry (David Mendenhall) is a creative introvert who can't relate to the other kids at school so he conjures up an imaginary friend "Mr. Nobody" in the form of an odd duck (voiced by Robert Ridgely who finally gets a non-evil role here- sharp-eyed viewers might also notice a bit of duck imagery in the two previous specials foreshadowing this.) That way he can always say he's with "Nobody" or that "Nobody" gave him any ideas. While Mr. Nobody might help Terry feel a little less alone, it's clear that he shouldn't be leaning on an imaginary friend his whole life so Puff steps in and takes him on a trip through the "Fantaverse" to show how much of Mr. Nobody is really himself.

I hadn't seen these two before, and though they didn't hit me as hard as the first did for my younger self, they were worthy successors that showed that kids do have problems that can go overlooked quite often. While a real-life Puff the Magic Dragon might not come along to help them, at least viewing these specials could get them thinking. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I think these are perfect examples of what is missing from TV these days.

Picture:

All programs on these discs were taken from analog tape masters that appear to have been the same used for their original TV broadcasts- as I've found to be the case with most of Paramount's TV material, the DVD encoding is just about perfect with no noticeable compression artifacts (though they can certainly afford a high bitrate on these given how little is on each disc.) The animation itself was done on good old-fashioned film, and picky viewers will notice a bit of dirt and scratches on some of it but that's how these have always looked even when they were brand-new. The only really distracting technical issue was excessive dot crawl on "Strawberry Shortcake in Big Apple City," and there was a bit of bleeding of bright colors (a typical analog video artifact) on both of those specials. (The Strawberry Shortcake and Dorothy specials may have been taken from European PAL masters, which I'll explain further down.)

Sound:

All shows were produced in mono as broadcast TV was still mono at this time, and are encoded as Dolby Digital 2-channel which stays centered. All sound clean with no background noise, about on par with any other quality release of TV material from this time. Hearing-impaired subtitles are included on all programs.

Extras:

Although there aren't any extras on these discs, those who are into home-video history will be pleasantly surprised to see the original 1980s Family Home Entertainment opening on "Peter and the Magic Egg," and the copyright warnings and intro from Vestron's Children's Video Library label on both Strawberry Shortcake specials and "Dorothy in the Land of Oz." It's odd to see these show up on Paramount discs, as Lionsgate now owns what has descended from these two companies. The shows from Children's Video Library are also preceded by Vestron Netherlands screens, suggesting that these may have been taken from PAL (European) format masters (I did not see any quality-related issues from this.) I noticed a customer comment on Amazon saying that they were disappointed these discs were taken from old VHS tapes, but more accurately they were taken from the professional-quality masters used to duplicate those tapes, not directly from a consumer VHS tape itself.

I do have to nit-pick about how these discs are packaged. I've always preferred having material on as few discs as possible as long as overcompression isn't an issue, and I've also preferred 2-sided discs which I know not everyone does. All four discs in this set are single-sided and single-layered, plus they come stacked on top of each other on one hub in the keepcase. While part of the reason for breaking these up onto four discs is because they are also available separately, they could have at least used a package that lets you access each disc individually. I'll likely be watching the fourth "Puff" disc more than the other three, so stacking them in order I'll have to remove the first three discs and keep those loose as that one plays. The labels on all four discs are very plain also, while the likely-bootleg 99-cent "Puff the Magic Dragon" disc at least had a full-color label.

Final Thoughts:

This "Children's Classics Collection" is an interesting assortment of early 1980s TV animation, showing how children's programming was heading in the direction of merchandising tie-ins with the "Strawberry Shortcake" specials but could still give us powerful and heartfelt stories from "Puff the Magic Dragon." The two middle shows seem to be just sort of there as filler, but these also had their fans who will be happy to see them here. It's odd that Paramount decided to release these four discs both separately and as this set, with the way they are priced the set is the better option.

Jesse Skeen is a life-long obsessive media collector (with an unhealthy preoccupation with obsolete and failed formats) and former theater film projectionist. He enjoys watching movies and strives for presenting them perfectly, but lacks the talent to make his own.

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