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Liberty's Kids: Complete Series

Other // G // October 14, 2008
List Price: $59.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted November 2, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Squeezing nearly sixteen years of history into a forty-part cartoon series, "Liberty's Kids" is a mammoth, ambitious undertaking for animation studio DiC. It rarely works as well as its producers assume it does, but as a way of taking kids beyond the barebones names and dates of the American Revolution, it succeeds splendidly.

The premise is epic, yet simple: tell the entire story of the Revolutionary War, from the Boston Tea Party in 1773 to George Washington's first inauguration in 1789, all through the eyes of three youngsters. Nearly every angle of the war is covered, including smaller stories not often mentioned when discussing the era, and the teens will find themselves meeting all the major players, from Franklin and Jefferson to Phillis Wheatley and Lafayette. In a move rarely seen in American children's programming, the series would consist of forty half-hour episodes to be viewed in order, making up one complete tale, effectively creating a fifteen-hour miniseries for kids. (It originally ran in one long go from September 2002 through April 2003 on PBS; following a round of reruns, it moved to the Kids WB! for a similar airing, and currently repeats the cycle in syndication.)

At the center of the real-life action are fictional kids (who apparently never age as the years pass!) James Hiller (voiced by Chris Lundquist), a brash fifteen-year-old orphan working as an apprentice in Benjamin Franklin's Philadelphia printing shop; Sarah Phillips (Reo Jones), also fifteen, a British girl hired on as a reporter for Franklin's newspaper; and eight-year-old Henri (Kathleen Barr), a French rascal who found a home in Franklin's shop after his parents died en route to America. Watching out for them is Moses (D. Kevin Williams), a former slave who bought his freedom and headed north.

It's Moses who teaches the kids the art of journalism, an art which creates the perfect excuse for the details found in each episode. Acting as reporters, the teens are able to get up close with politicians, soldiers, and influential figures, and when they recount what they've seen for the newspaper, the scripts can sneak in facts-and-figures recaps without seeming dry or dull. This is a show that manages to present history as living drama without giving up its educational mission.

As a drama, however, it's not always on the mark. Vocal performances are often clunky (most notably Jones' gratingly fakey Brit accent), and dialogue is usually a pinch too wooden. Exposition is awkwardly added throughout, breaking the rhythms of the story.

Most distracting - if only for parents - is the gimmick of hiring famous names to give voice to the historical figures. Some casting choices are inspired; it's hard to complain about Walter Cronkite's authoritative boom bringing Ben Franklin's memorable quotes to life. Others add nothing beyond a "hey, it's that guy!" factor, as with Michael Douglas or Whoopi Goldberg. And other still lead to such embarrassing decisions as Sylvester Stallone as Paul Revere (!) and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Baron von Steuben (!!). While some of these performances are solid, many more are not (even dependable talents like Dustin Hoffman - here playing Benedict Arnold - don't click the way you'd expect), and since kids aren't going to recognize these voices, why bother?

But for all this clumsiness, it's still an involving, rewarding series, eager to bring children into the discussion of American history. The producers take many bold risks, including an approach to the material that says, loudly and confidently, that young viewers can handle more complex themes. Yes, the Brits are, for the most part, painted broadly as the enemy, but the inclusion of the Sarah character allows for a wider range of views. Warfare is not treated lightly, the writers refusing to whitewash the idea of men shooting each other (although, of course, it all remains age-appropriate; the show presents the sad truth of war without the accompanying brutal imagery). Issues of slavery and women's rights are brought to the foreground (again, delicately yet honestly), painting a fuller, more detailed portrait of this chapter in history.

Throughout, the series walks a fine line, avoiding blind deification of the Founding Fathers but still showing vast respect and pride for their accomplishments and the nation they created. There's a desire here to go beyond the simplistic surface and ask serious questions, without stumbling into cynicism. "Liberty's Kids" shows you can indeed show a fuller, richer, multifaceted side of history and still walk away with joyous patriotic optimism.

The DVD

Shout! Factory collects all forty episodes in their six-disc set "Liberty's Kids: The Complete Series." The six discs are housed in three slimline cases which fit into a glossy cardboard slipcover.

The episodes featured in this set are:

Disc One: "The Boston Tea Party", "The Intolerable Acts", "United We Stand", "Liberty or Death", "Midnight Ride", "The Shot Heard Round the World", and "Green Mountain Boys".

Disc Two: "The Second Continental Congress", "Bunker Hill", "Washington Takes Command", "Postmaster General Franklin", "Common Sense", "The First Fourth of July", and "New York, New York".

Disc Three: "The Turtle", "One Life to Lose", "Captain Molly", "American Crisis", "Across the Delaware", and "An American in Paris".

Disc Four: "Sybil Ludington", "Lafayette Arrives", "The Hessians are Coming", "Valley Forge", "Allies at Last", "Honor and Compromise", and "The New Frontier".

Disc Five: "Not Yet Begun to Fight", "The Great Galvez", "In Praise of Ben", "Bostonians", "Benedict Arnold", "Conflict in the South", and "Deborah Samson - Soldier of the Revolution".

Disc Six: "James Armistead", "Yorktown", "Born Free and Equal", "The Man Who Wouldn't Be King", "Going Home", and "We the People".

Video & Audio

Bold and colorful, "Liberty's Kids" looks darn spiffy in this 1.33:1 full frame transfer - as it should, considering the relative newness of the production. The animation is better than usual by DiC's standards, with richly detailed backgrounds and impressive character designs, all getting a nice showcase here.

There's nothing fancy about the soundtrack, presented here in a simple stereo mix that offers plain yet effective balancing of dialogue and music. No subtitles are included.

Extras

Each episode originally aired with four "LNN: Liberty News Network" snippets, these little minute-long story break puzzles and asides focusing on the names and events from that story. All 160 of them are spread out over the six discs, one of each per episode:

-- "Benjamin Franklin's Newsbytes" finds Cronkite's Franklin playing anchorman, giving a quick recap of the key news items from each episode's timeframe.

-- "Continental Cartoons" asks kids to solve rebus-like picture clues that then help fill in the name of famous historical names.

-- "Now and Then" compares life in the late 18th and early 21st centuries.

-- The "Mystery Guest Game" offers three clues about an historical figure.

Disc One includes an "Original Pencil Test" (3:28) for brief clips from "Midnight Ride." Hosted by executive producer/supervising director Mike Maliani, who explains why animators use such pencil tests.

Disc One also opens with a batch of previews which play as the disc loads.

Disc Four features "A Look Back at Liberty's Kids with the Creators" (27:43), which features lengthy (yet not at all boring) talking head interviews with the show's creators, who recount their efforts in balancing historical honesty and kid-appropriate storytelling.

Tucked inside the box is a 40-page booklet featuring an episode guide, history timeline, and images from the series. There's also a fold-out poster with characters on one side and a handy map (showing where events of each episode took place) on the other.

(All bonus material is presented in 1.33:1 full frame.)

Final Thoughts

Despite its frequent clumsiness, "Liberty's Kids" is a commendable - and often highly enjoyable - piece of educational storytelling. The show has a way of connection with young viewers without driving parents from the room. Shout! Factory's efforts in packaging the series adds nicely to the mix. Recommended.
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