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Between the Lions Season 1

WGBH // Unrated // January 8, 2008
List Price: $79.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Paul Mavis | posted January 8, 2008 | E-mail the Author

WGBH Boston Video has released Between the Lions: Season 1, a 5-disc, 30-episode compilation of the Public Broadcasting series that focuses on teaching young children to read. Through the use of puppetry, CGI and traditional animation, and live-action filmed segments, Between the Lions: Season 1 strives for a humorous, fun approach to English studies, keeping the visuals constantly moving to attract little viewers.

Having attended elementary school during the 1970s, when teachers suddenly saw a way to get an hour's worth of peace and quiet away from their unruly herd by turning on the TV in class ("You mean we get to watch school?") to PBS' Sesame Street and The Electric Company, I would imagine Between the Lions probably has the same deal going down in classrooms all across the country today. Personally, I never paid much attention to either of those two earlier shows, nor do I remember any of my classmates watching them too closely, either (with the drapes drawn and the lights out, most of us played with our Hot Wheels under the barely-opened lids of our desks). "Educational TV Time" at school equaled "Play Time" or "Surreptitious Nap Time" or "Staring Blankly Out the Window, Wishing You were Anywhere Other than Here in This Stifling, Joyless Classroom Time." By the time we saw those shows, they always seemed far too babyish and elementary for the reading levels most of us were already at - and as for funny, well....

Between the Lions: Season 1 focuses on a family of lions: parents Theo and Cleo, and their cubs Lionel and Leona. Frequently found at the local library, the family becomes involved in many adventures as they pursue their love of reading. Characters from books frequently pop out and join them, while their adventures are interrupted by various humorous blackout sketches and inserts, all of which are devoted to teaching a particular vowel sound or suffix or prefix for that particular episode. Other characters that float through the episodes include Click the Mouse (a computer "mouse"), Arty Smartypants (a vaudeville-type marionette), Barnaby B. Busterfield III (the carved headstone over the library), Walter and Clay Pigeon (who obviously engage with the stone statue Barnaby), Dr. Ruth Wordheimer (played by Dr. Ruth Westheimer), Cliff Hanger (an animated cartoon), Gawain's World (a Wayne's World parody using Knights of the Realm), Fun with Chicken Jane (a mean-spirited take-off on the beloved Dick and Jane reader books), and many others.

All of these elements are jumbled and shuffled together to create a fast-paced, 25-minute episode that emphasizes basic English skills in reading, grammar, pronunciation and comprehension. Repetition is key, considering the age group targeted, and the humor (most of it lame to this adult) supposedly makes all that "book learning" go down easier. While the true effects of thirty or forty years worth of all these touchy-feeling approaches to education is certainly debatable, strictly from an entertainment angle, most very young viewers will find Between the Lions: Season 1 at least watchable. Today, I suspect teachers are a little more sensitive to age-appropriate materials, so Between the Lions: Season 1 probably doesn't get past kindergarteners or first-graders. And within that age range, I suppose Between the Lions: Season 1 might be enjoyable. My littlest kids liked it (at least initially). They watched it once or twice, and proclaimed it a good show, and went back to their toys. But a couple of days later, when I asked them to watch some new episodes, they passed (always a warning flag). Speaking for myself, I would suggest sitting down with your child for a half hour and reading to them out of book, rather than plunking them down in front of Between the Lions: Season 1. You'll both get more out of the experience, and it's an age-old, proven, effective method of teaching children how to read - as well as instilling in them a desire and willingness to read. But Between the Lions: Season 1 won't hurt them, I suppose (although I didn't appreciate some of the segments, like Fun with Chicken Little, which took sweet characters like Dick and Jane, and made them accomplices in animal pain jokes, and I kept expecting Dr. Ruth to throw out the word "condom" every time she popped up). And there are worse shows for little viewers to watch, so....

Here are the 30 episodes included on the five-disc, 30-episode collection, Between the Lions: Season 1:

Here are the six episodes featured on the The Lost Rock disc, as described on its slimcase:

Pecos Bill Cleans Up the West
A storybook tornado blows into the library and makes a terrible mess.

The Lost Rock
A rock rolls out of his book and then can't remember which book he belongs in.

Little Big Mouse
Click's feelings are hurt when Lionel and Leona start a fan club for a heroic storybook mouse.

Farmer Ken's Puzzle
Lionel won't let Leona play a computer game for ages seven and up because she's four and down.

Shooting Stars
The very sleepy Lion family tries to stay up very late at night, so they won't miss the most spectacular meteor shower of the year.

The Hopping Hen
Everyone in the library goes crazy after Lionel puts up signs about new rules.

Here are the six episodes featured on the Touching the Moon disc, as described on its slimcase:

Touching the Moon
Leona keeps the whole family awake because she wants a queen to touch the moon.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf
Lionel and Leona show a shepherd boy from a storybook how to cry "Wolf!" when his sheep are threatened, and then he doesn't stop!

Fuzzy, Wuzzy, Wuzzy?
Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn't fuzzy, was he? Well, was he?

Lionel's Antlers
Just like the girl in the book Imogene's Antlers, Lionel wakes up with antlers on his head.

To the Ship! To the Ship!
Lionel and Walter the pigeon think all pirates were men, so they won't let Leona and Clay join their pirate game.

The Chap with Caps
The Lion family helps a writer fix a story about a chap, a cap, and lots of chattering monkeys.

Here are the six episodes featured on the Pandora's Box disc, as described on its slimcase:

Pandora's Box
Should Lionel and Leona open a mysterious box that has a "Do Not Open" sign on it?

Lionel's Great Escape Trick
Lionel ties himself up with ropes and tries to escape without magic words.

There's a Fly in My Soup
Everyone reads jokes to Click the Mouse to try to make her laugh.

The Popcorn Popper
Lionel and Leona persuade Click to take a magic popcorn popper out of a book and then can't make it stop popping!

Something Fishy
When Lionel reads the latest Cliff Hanger book to Leona, it gives her an idea about how to make one of her biggest dreams come true.

Hug, Hug, Hug!
Leona helps a sculptor who falls in love with his statue.

Here are the six episodes featured on the The Ram in the Pepper Patch disc, as described on its slimcase:

The Ram in the Pepper Patch
A rambunctious ram leaves his book, butts everyone and everything in the library, and won't go back!

A Peck of Peppers
Lionel thinks he is the king of tongue twisters and nobody can write one that he can't say.

Sausage Nose
Theo, Cleo, Lionel, and Leona watch a video about a husband and wife, three wishes, a sausage and a nose.

Red Hat, Green Hat
Leona's new hat stirs up trouble in the library.

The Lucky Duck
Lionel tries to help a very cute duck from a very cute book stop being so cute.

The Old Man
Writer Babs Caplan visits the library to write the world's scariest story.

Here are the six episodes featured on the A King and His Hawk disc, as described on its slimcase:

A King and His Hawk
Leona thinks a book Lionel reads to her is too sad, so she tries to make sure nobody else can read it.

The Roar that Makes Them Run
Leona and Lionel try to get their dad to roar a mighty roar.

Piggyback, Piggyback
Leona decides to ride piggyback on her dad's back forever and ever.

The Fox and the Crow
The two pigeons, Walter and Clay, want The Fox and The Crow banned from the library because they think it makes birds look like birdbrains.

Giants and Cubs
Leona thinks scary giants are coming into the library to clobber lion clubs.

Be Bop
When cool, jazzy shoes come out of a book and dance all over the library, everybody gets into the groove.

The DVD:

The Video:
The full screen, 1.33:1 video transfers for Between the Lions: Season 1 aren't the greatest (compression issues did occur), but overall, they're relative sharp pictures, with okay color values.

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo audio mix is entirely adequate for the job here. All dialogue is heard clearly. Close captioning is available.

The Extras:
Each disc has the same extras included: a 26-minute bonus video, Leading the Way to Literacy, which discusses some of the goals of the Between the Lions series, as well as DVD-ROM materials for kindergarten teachers, reading tips, practice sheets, family activities sheets, and access to the official website.

Final Thoughts:
Too P.C. for my personal tastes (somebody is always popping some kid's balloon, telling them that the stories they read are fake, but that their own problems are real) and not particularly funny, adults might groan their way through Between the Lions: Season 1, but the very littlest of children might like it - once. Just think how many books you could read with your child, together, in the same amount of time that this 780-minute boxed set takes up? Try a rental first, unless you're already a fan of the show.

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.

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