Kids are usually way ahead of the curve on upcoming holidays, so it's just about the right time for them to enjoy Halloween Spooktacular, a short collection of seven HIT Entertainment episodes from some of their most popular series. Featuring shows from Barney & Friends, Thomas the Train, Bob the Builder, Kipper and others, Halloween Spooktacular may be a stretch thematically, since only three of the episodes included here deal specifically with Halloween (the other four feature scary, Halloween-related elements like bats, or ghosts, or costume parties), but overall, it's an appropriately Autumnal-feeling collection, and should be a nice addition to your holiday collection. Let's look briefly at the individual offerings here in HIT Entertainment's (through Lionsgate's releasing) of Halloween Spooktacular.
BARNEY & FRIENDS: Sweet Treats
This episode from October, 2007 has Barney and his friends all geared up to go trick or treating on Halloween night. Riff is dressed as a one-man band, Barney is a king, and Baby Bop plays a pirate - which is just what young boy Ramone is going as this year. But Ramone is shy, and perhaps a little afraid, of going from stop to stop throughout the playground, where the neighborhood is celebrating Halloween. So Baby Bop offers to go with him, and teaches him how to say, "Trick or Treat," and "Thank you," when he gets candy. Unfortunately, when the night is over, Ramone finds out that he's lost all his candy through a hole in his bag, but Baby Bop immediately offers the sad Ramone all of his candy, while Barney and the rest of the gang share their treats with Baby Bop.
I know Barney & Friends gets a bad rap from parents and critics from time to time (admittedly, I can't take more than one or two episodes at a time), but there's no denying the minute that theme music comes on, and the big purple dinosaur comes bouncing out, that little kids get very excited (my two-year-old went quite insane dancing around to the theme song). You can't argue with star power. I can't explain why these shows are so popular with the littlest kids (it's probably the songs, or the bright colors, or the constant movement), but they are sweet shows with good messages for kids to learn, and this Halloween episode is nicely done (mention should be made here of the excellent lighting that went into this show, creating an evocative Halloween night at Barney's playground).
BOB THE BUILDER: Dizzy's Sleepover
In this third season offering from the Project Build It series of episodes specifically dubbed for American audiences, Bob the Builder and his pals have a tough job to do: refurbish the town's watermill so flour can be ground there again, with a large hole in the roof as their biggest stumbling block. When Bob inspects the mill, he hears a rustling sound and realizes there are bats living up in the roof. Dizzy the cement mixer is ecstatic to learn this, and can't wait to see the bats - who won't come out because it's daylight. Bob learns from the town's expert on animals that bats can stay in a working environment if it isn't too noisy, but that's going to be hard because Dizzy keeps making a mess, rolling around too excitedly, fearing she'll miss seeing them. Finally, that night, Bob organizes a sleep-over at the mill so Dizzy can finally see her bats.
I've written before about Bob the Builder, and while I'm not a big fan of the show, this episode is okay, even though it's barely Halloween-related. The very last shot, where the bats fly around over the watermill's roof in the full moonlight, is a nicely evocative shot, but the rest of episode is more of the same of most Bob the Builder episodes: Bob has a job to do, one of his friends screws it up, and he has to fix it, while everyone learns a lesson. I cracked up when the town expert gave the go-ahead for the town to use the watermill as long as it wasn't too loud for the bats, but other than that dopey message, it's an innocuous (and fairly brief) episode.
ANGELINA BALLERINA: Midnight Muddle
First airing in Spring of 2002, Midnight Muddle tells the story of how Angelina Mouseling and her friend, Alice Nimbletoes, get into all sorts of trouble when they have a camp-out in Angelina's backyard. Next door, grumpy old Mrs. Hodgepodge is growing what is sure to be the prize-winning cauliflower for the county fair. But when mean Sammy Watts tries to scare the girls that night by pretending to be the ghost of Old Red Whiskers, Angelina and Alice panic, and Angelina tramps over Mrs. Hodgepodge's huge cauliflower, destroying it. Realizing that morning what she has done, the two girls try and apologize (without fessing up to what happened) by baking a cake for Mrs. Hodgepodge, but that backfires, too. Eventually, the two girls confess, and are suitably punished - along with Sammy - with a stint of working in Mrs. Hodgepodge's garden
While it doesn't deal specifically with Halloween (I'm not sure why this one was included, when another episode, Henry's Halloween, would have been more suitable), the ghost angle of the story fits the over-all theme of the disc, and the cartoon, as I've written before, is quite cute and clever, with a good message in each of the shorts. I particularly like the Englishness of the girls' punishment - good, strong, hard work in Mrs. Hodgepodge's garden. They're not let off with just a, "Sorry." As well, it's quite nice to see Mrs. Hodgepodge forgive them - only after they've finished their work - with a casserole made from the cauliflower. That's a good story for kids to see.
FIREMAN SAM: Mummy's Little Pumpkin
In this Welsh-produced stop-motion animation short, first aired in April of 2005, Dilys Price, the gossipy owner of Pontypandy's grocery store, has her hands full with "Mummy's Little Darling," Norman, her slightly strange young boy who likes to get into all sorts of mischief. It's Halloween, and this year, Norman wants to go as a vampire. Dilys warns Norman not to truly frighten people like he did last year, but Norman pays her no mind and prepares his costume. As well, he picks out a giant-sized pumpkin to put in his mother's store window. Too bad he didn't listen to Fireman Elvis Cridlington's advice on fire safety ("Always remember to blow out your candle before going to bed."), because when Norman leaves the house to go trick or treating, he slams the shop door and unwittingly knocks over the still-lit jack-a-lantern, setting the shop on fire. Luckily, all the firefighters are on hand to save Dilys, trapped upstairs.
I thought I was up on all of these kids shows, but I must confess I had never heard of Fireman Sam before. Originally produced in Wales from 1985, it was later dubbed into English for the BBC in 1987, where it ran sporadically until 1994. Mummy's Little Pumpkin is from the show's reboot in 2005, where, according to sources I read, the Welsh accents were toned down considerably for the show (to this American ear, they sounded pleasingly strong). Featuring hyper-realistic detailing (for this kind of low-budget kids show) on the stop-motion animation, I found Fireman Sam quite attractive visually (I like the almost gritty, Coronation Street look of Dilys's shop and street). As for the characters, they're offbeat enough, too, to perhaps pique your interest (Norman is quite a strange-acting boy). And it wouldn't hurt for kids to see what could happen if they're not careful around lit pumpkins this time of year. An interesting cartoon that I'll be on the lookout for in the future.
THOMAS & FRIENDS: Halloween
In another excellent Thomas & Friends short, originally broadcast in 2004, Thomas and Emily are given the special assignment by Sir Topham Hatt: go to the scrapyard that night and pick up a load of steel that's needed before the morning. There's only one problem: it's Halloween, and Thomas was looking forward to seeing the children dressed in their costumes. Percy warns Thomas and Emily that it's scary at the scrapyard, but the two steam engines are brave, and chug along to the scrapyard. Once there, though, the creepy scrapyard doesn't look so nice, and it doesn't help that mean diesel engines Harry and Bert are secretly scaring the two "steamies" by making a lot of frightening noises. When a tarp falls on Emily, everyone thinks she's a ghost and they run back to their depot - upsetting Sir Topham Hatt.
I've written before about Thomas & Friends, and this is yet another example of how well made and clever this children's show is - even for adults, as well. Dealing specifically with Halloween (the third and last one on this collection to do so), it's also the scariest one (for little kids) on this disc - and more welcome for that. The filmmakers, as usual, do an excellent job with the production design, creating a suitably spooky, fog-laden scrapyard on Halloween night, and I must say that I always enjoy the slight edge that can be found in many of these Thomas shorts. The fact that diesels Henry and Bert deliberately want to scare those two chicken little "steamies" is of course, not nice (and they get in trouble for doing that, and punished by Sir Topham Hatt), but it is kind of funny in a low-key, mean-spirited way. It's a grumpy British attitude often found under the surface of many of these Thomas the Tank Engine, and I like it.
Kipper: The Costume Party
Listed as a "bonus" feature (why don't the disc makers just say they have seven shorts here, instead of five, with two "bonus" ones?), this episode of Kipper has the laconic beagle (?) receiving an invitation from his friend Tiger for a costume party. Rummaging through his clothes, he finds a few costumes that are tattered beyond use, before he decides to rent a costume. But nothing seems right for Kipper, so he whips something up (he goes as SuperDog, with a cape), and arrives at the party. But to everyone's surprise, it's Jake the Sheepdog who wins first prize at the party... as a pretty ballerina.
Kipper, one of my favorite cartoons from some years back, is a welcome sight on this disc. Even though this episode's inclusion here is hardly Halloween-related, the light, funny, jazzy Kipper shorts (based on the equally marvelous books by Mick Inkpen) are always a delight. Sporting one of the coolest jazz themes on TV, Kipper's animation looks deceptively spare and simple, but there's a surprising amount of character delineated here, with plenty of humorous asides that keep these shorts both funny and sharp. There's an almost dead-pan humor to the Kipper shorts' timing, and this episode is no different (watch how the filmmakers cleverly fade-out on the visual joke of Jake, arriving at the party in his tutu, just as it registers that he's tiptoeing/mincing in). Good to see Kipper again!
FIFI AND THE FLOWERTOTS: Fifi's Scarecrow
Another bogus "bonus" episode, the seventh and last show collected for the Halloween Spooktacular is taken from the British stop-motion animated show Fifi and the Flowertots, which first aired in 2005. Fifi, a flower/child hybrid, is tending to her garden when she notices that butterflies are threatening to eat all of her beans. She decides she needs a scarecrow, but she doesn't know how to make one. After consulting with her various friends, and after obtaining some old clothes from her friend Primrose, she makes her scarecrow. But it doesn't work, and Primrose is upset when she finds out how Fifi used her clothes. Will Fifi fix the scarecrow and save her beans?
This is another animated series I wasn't familiar with, but I don't think I'll be tracking it down soon. Created by Keith Chapman, the same person behind Bob the Builder, Fifi and the Flowertots seems to have the same drawbacks as that show (although, admittedly, it's probably unfair to judge the show based on just one episode). While the story is plain and simple, it's executed in a pedestrian fashion, while the voice work is just horrible: nothing but screeching, whining, high-pitched voices for the flower/children that immediately grated on my nerves. Watching this episode, I had the feeling that the whole show was designed strictly as a product tie-in for toys - which is fine, if the show is any good on its own. Which this one isn't. The only plus? The kind of catchy Euro-disco club theme.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.