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Animal Jam

Boo, get off the stage!

Howard Bowers (2-25-2003) - Extremely cute characters may not be enough to make
this show work.

I got up a little early this morning, with my 22-month old son, for the premiere of Animal Jam With a Henson production, you can usually count on: (1) snappy songs, (2) smart writing, (3) fun characters, (4) a certain sense of gentleness. With Animal Jam, you get one of these in fun, but the rest seems to have been traded for an overly busy set and a boatload of kids. That is somehow supposed to translate into excitement.

The show is largely centered around children in the studio dancing (actually, "moving" would be a more accurate description) and a story between the Muppet characters. The whole affair is bookended by...breathing exercises. That's right, breathing exercises.

Preschoolers love dance music and preschoolers love Muppets, so the two would seem to go well together. The Wiggles, for one, have made a living from becoming real-life puppets who sing and dance. What makes the Wiggles work is not only their songs, but the song's visual presentation as well: simple backgrounds, a low number of bodies on screen (usually less than 6), and actual choreography that the kids can follow and learn to repeat. My 22-month old, who is just learning to speak, has already memorized the actions of a half-dozen Wiggles' songs and happily does them along with the television each morning.

Waffle, affectionately known as a Cow-Monkey is energetic and waitng to invite you to the party.

Animal Jam, instead, takes a "more is more" approach in the "Dance Party" segments. Scenes of 50+ kids, arranged randomly in a studio with nightclub-style lighting, are combined with large video screens playing stock footage of animals in the wild. Inserts of the puppet stars, shot on Chromakey backgrounds and superimposed over the animals, are cut in. Finally, more scenes of the puppets, physically down on the floor with the kids in the studio, are added.

The mass of bodies onstage are supposed to follow movement instructions from the songs. With the number of children in the studio, it looked more like random flailing than a prescribed routine. The show's brightly-colored sets, lighting and the 3 or 4 colors of t-shirts the children wear make the visuals confusing for preschoolers and adults. With so much going on, it's nearly impossible to focus on any one thing. Watching the dance numbers, I was oddly reminded of Edward Norton's children's show featured in the film "Death to Smoochy," minus the punch-drunk ex-boxer, of course.

The Muppet story segments are better produced, but again suffer from the backgrounds not providing enough contrast with the characters. (Take a look at "Bear in the Big Blue House" and notice how the walls and furniture use less-saturated colors than the characters.) The story on the premiere episode centered around Waffle, the wonderfully-designed cowboy monkey character, and Bozark, a disturbing-looking elephant. Waffle mistakenly believed he was not invited to Bozark's birthday party.

While the story was certainly acceptable, the rest of the characters (especially the three DJ's: One, Two, and Three) didn't have much to do given the short running time of the segments. In time, hopefully, the characters will have a chance to develop and the writers and performers can start adding those little bits that keep us parents entertained.

What the show suffers from the most, however, is a general lack of focus. Is it a character-driven show that delivers a message about handling emotions? Is it about wild animals? Is it about children doing interpretative dance? What is this show about anyway?

As it stands, Animal Jam is an attractively-packaged bad idea. It's like a stew with too many ingredients. While tasty on their own, combined, they leave an odd taste in the mouth.

Cindy Chapman (3-3-2003) - If you look at the ingredients, it looks like a recipe for success. Start with a bunch of kids, a lot of music, a sprinkling of animals, and a dash of puppets and you’ve got a kids show, right? Well, Animal Jam does have those classic ingredients but has added a bit of a twist. First, there are lots of kids. These real kids get a lot of airtime. There are kids of every race, age, gender, and physical capacity. These are kids that your kids want to see on TV. They’re real, they’re your next-door neighbors; their hair isn’t perfect, they don’t have the perfect smile, and you can’t help but like them. And for a show that centers on physical movement, kudos to the Animal Jam team for showing a kid in a wheel chair having as much fun as everyone else.

DJ1, DJ2 and DJ3 play great music for Waffle the Cow-Monkey, Edi the Zebra, and all the kids at the Animal Jam dance party.

The show is essentially American Bandstand in disguise. Although there is a little bit of learning, the idea is to get your kids moving. With an estimated 13% of American children, ages 6 to 11, and 14% of adolescents, ages 12 to 19, who are overweight or obese, it looks like a show like this is long overdue. Rather than just looking to entertain, Animal Jam encourages kids to move, dance, or act silly. Let’s face it, there are enough shows out there that can just entertain (not to mention Xbox and PlayStation) so it’s refreshing to see a show that’s not the norm. The show is also commercial free, so you don’t have to worry that your child will become distracted to ask you for the latest toy.

Kids of all ages are dressed in brightly different colored t-shirts with an animal print screen printed on the front. The dance floor they occupy is also decorated with animal footprints. Giving it the adult dance club feel, there are strobe lights and a large screen for showing real life animal clips. Throughout the show, the kids are shown doing the various activities that are talked about in the songs. The music is trendy and hip. This isn’t your typical kiddy fare music. The melody and rhythms mimic what kids hear from mom and dad’s radio. There’s hip-hop, rap, Latin, country-western, and rock. Each show always begins with a warm-up and ends with a cool-down. These beginning and end exercises include a Bullfrog Belly grab, neck roll, and Water bird wings. Keep in mind this is not a choreographed show. These are real kids, remember? Sometimes, they get it right, sometimes they don’t. Just like your kid at home. A few child actors have been interspersed with the other kids, just to help keep things on track, though.

The puppets act as the storyline and help to explain the theme of the show. Edie is a bright pink and yellow girl zebra. Waffle is a cow-monkey, which means he’s a monkey with a cowboy hat. There are also three DJ’s that help run the music. DJ’s 1, 2, and 3 typically stay behind the soundboard and before each song countdown 3-2-1. DJ 3 is cheetah looking puppet, 2 is a koala, and 1 is a panda. Bozark is a non-speaking full body elephant that pretty much just dances. If there was an Elvis of the Animal kingdom, Bozark is it. It’s obvious that Bozark’s costume was designed for movement. The actor inside gets a workout as he spins on the floor, jumps, and dances around with the kids. Your typical full body puppet outfit would not be able to accomplish such tasks.

Each episode includes one song from each Edi and Waffle. In their song they talk about different ways to move or act. Each song deals with a specific issue, like body language, personal space, or different ways animals walk. Waffle’s song typically increases in tempo as the song goes along, so kids are really hopping by the end. After a little more storyline and dialogue, Bozark is introduced into the show. While DJ 1 “raps”, Bozark moves and grooves for the kids. Towards the end of Bozark’s song, the kids join him on the dance floor and get movin’.

Animal Jam has a lot of potential. It’s early morning time slot should reach those kids before they head off to school or daycare. We all know how hard it is for our kids to sit still, so Animal Jam is a great way to jump-start your kid in the morning. Before they have to sit still on a bus ride or in a classroom, kids can get all that pent up energy out before they leave the house. There’s also a message in there too. They’re learning about personal space, emotions, and how a crab walks.

My only issues with this show are the puppets. In the time allowed, there just isn’t a way to more fully develop the characters. Edi and Waffle get enough screen time, but the message often hinders their personality. DJ’s 1,2, and 3 are essentially comedic relief that doesn’t leave much for deep characterization. Bozark to me has the least personality at all. This is primarily due to the fact that he has a non-speaking role. I realize he doesn’t have a mouth (apparently not necessary for a dancing elephant) but I would still like to see him have a voice. Just in case you weren’t aware, kids don’t have to see a mouth move to know that a puppet is talking.

Despite the character development downfall (which could come with time), I think Animal Jam is quite good. It’s not like any other show currently, and it dares to be different. Its time slot and network are a good choice. It has got all the ingredients for a great show. Kids love watching other kids on TV. Kids love animals. Kids love music and movement. Kids also love puppets. All it needs is a little more puppet flavoring and the folks at Animal Jam will smell like a winner.

 
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