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Happy New Year, Charlie Brown

A not-so-Happy New Year for Charlie Brown
This now-forgotten "Peanuts" animated special aired originally on New Year's Day 1986 (and recently rerun in 2014 on ABC) is a nice addition to any New Year's celebration and indeed a wonderful companion to the Thanksgiving and Christmas specials. The script uses quite a bit of material from classic "Peanuts" strips dating back to the early '60s mixed into a storyline involving the most stressful New Year's holiday one could imagine: Charlie Brown not only has to read "War and Peace" and write a book report on it as assigned by his sadist of a teacher (in the original strip, it was "Gulliver's Travels," by the way), but stresses out over Peppermint Patty and Marcie's New Year's party and the prerequisite dance lessons. Poor Charlie Brown spends 70 percent of the special lugging around a book that's half as big as he is, having no success in getting through it (by New Year's Eve he's still only on page five), and trying to get in some reading time whenever he can (even at the party itself), and the rest of the time worrying about inviting the Little Red-Haired Girl to the dance (much to the disgust of Peppermint Patty, who expects Charlie Brown to ask her and is as usual completely oblivious to the fact that he's not interested in her). Both story lines end as unhappily as one would expect them to in a "Peanuts" special, though there's a bit of a consolation prize for Charlie Brown as far as the party goes...

The special will probably invite the inevitable comparisons to 1984's "It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown," due to the "party" storyline and the inclusion of a few songs. In particular, the 1950s-ish "Musical Chairs" song sounds like a leftover from "Flashbeagle" in that it sounds a lot like an amalgamation of "Lucy Says" (although this time around it's Peppermint Patty and not Lucy who sings the song and dominates the game) and "I'm In Shape." By the way, the reviewer who said the "Pig Pen Hoedown" was included in this special is incorrect; the "Hoedown" is included in "Flashbeagle." Pig Pen appears in this special only as a musician in Schroeder's jazz combo at the New Year's party.

This special is, however, much more cohesive than "Flashbeagle" in terms of story, and doesn't seem as disjointed, as there's very little extraneous material outside of the chief story lines, and Snoopy doesn't hog all the screen time, which, as much as I love Snoopy, can get quite tiring in other "Peanuts" movies and specials.

Overall, very enjoyable even if it doesn't rise to the "classic" level of "A Charlie Brown Christmas," "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving," "It's the Easter Beagle..." or "It's the Great Pumpkin...". 7/10. One of the better post-1980 "Peanuts" specials.

Gurimu meisaku gekijou

Fairy tales + anime = A winner!
For many years, the Japanese animation studio Nippon Animation was very well known for providing anime adaptations of Western literary works. The best example is, of course, the annual "World Masterpiece Theater" serials ("Anne of Green Gables," "Tom Sawyer," "Little Women," "Little Princess Sara" and various others), but that's far from the only example. The show known in North America and shown on Nickelodeon as "Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics" was actually two different series ("Grimm Masterpiece Theater", 1987-88, and "New Grimm Masterpiece Theater," 1988-89) shown in Japan on TV Asahi and redubbed and reedited for U.S. distribution by Saban International. While it wasn't one of Nippon Animation's more popular or well-known series, it has been shown in various European countries as well as the U.S. and is remembered fondly by many who saw it as children, including myself.

This charming anime stands out from the massive crop of animated fairy-tale adaptations on the market due to its production values. Nippon Animation had high standards at the time, and it shows - faces are expressive, there's lots of attention to detail in even minor movements, and the backgrounds are beautifully done. Even with the budgets of TV animation in the late '80s, the show never looks chintzy or sloppy, even though there are scenes (particularly when the narrator is speaking) that do remind us that there WAS a budget (a still frame rather than actual animation). One thing that can be distracting if one is watching this as a series is that the show used four or five character designers, so the character designs and art styles vary widely from one episode to another. But of course, this is an episodic series (few stories cover more than one half-hour episode, with a few exceptions, most notably "Snow White") and meant to be viewed as such, so others may not find this as much of an issue.

Saban's dub is mostly good, but not perfect. The voice acting is very good, and many of the voices will be familiar to those who have watched "Robotech," "Tenchi Muyo!," "Outlaw Star" and "Pokemon" among other shows. The dialogue is often written quite awkwardly, however, as was probably necessary to match the lip flaps. The score by Haim Saban and Shuki Levy, replacing the original music by Hideo Shimazu (which can still be heard in some other foreign dubs, i.e. the German version), is pleasant enough but recycled a bit too frequently, and Shimazu's original beautifully orchestrated score is superior. On the other hand, there are some short songs in a few episodes (i.e. "Jorinde and Joringel" and "The Six Who Went Far") - though this isn't really a "musical" anime - which are quite nicely sung despite occasionally cutesy lyrics. Another memorable moment is when the Big Bad Wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood" breaks into a rap... no kidding.

Which brings me to another of the charming things about this series - the occasional sight gags and in-jokes. One example can be found in the "Briar Rose" (Sleeping Beauty) episode. Look closely at the invitations the witches receive and you'll see they are written in Japanese Romanji in Olde German-style text! (This was kept in the dub, by the way.) Also, one of the other reviewers mentioned the lack of fart jokes in this series. There actually IS a fart joke in the original version of "Jorinde and Joringel" which was cut from the English dub. If you can find the German dub online, watch it and you'll see what I mean. LOL! It's a quite different treatment than the "World Masterpiece Theater" series which were usually quite serious.

Overall, one of the finest adaptations of fairy tales I've seen. Despite the slight imperfections in the dub, I find these equally as enjoyable as anything Disney did. 8.5/10.

Charlotte's Web

A bittersweet children's classic
First of all, a disclaimer of sorts: I do remember reading the original E.B. White book for school as a child, but I'm fairly sure I saw the movie first. I haven't read the book recently enough to be able to comment on how faithful this animated adaptation is. So my review will focus on the movie's merits from a production standpoint. And it has many.

As other commenters have pointed out, at first viewing it seems rather hard to believe that this film was made by the same company that produced "The Flintstones" and "Yogi Bear." The animation may look dated by today's standards, and the secondary characters do look like rush jobs, but the central characters - Wilbur, Charlotte, Templeton, Fern, et al. - are animated quite nicely in my opinion. There are moments of real beauty, such as the sequence during "Deep In The Dark/Charlotte's Lullaby" (the song probably known to most as "Charlotte's Web," sung by an all-male chorus). On the whole, the animation is very simple, but it is fluid and it gives the movie a simple, homey charm missing from the CG-heavy animated feature films of today.

The songs seem to be quite a point of contention among those who have seen this movie. Some of them are cloying and syrupy, but even the worst songs in this film are good - they're catchy and very well sung. As with many others, Paul Lynde's hilarious reading of "A Veritable Smorgasbord" as Templeton the rat (also when sung as a duet with Agnes Moorehead as the Goose) is a highlight for me, as is "Chin Up," which is guaranteed to stick in your head for hours. "Mother Earth and Father Time" is touching, especially the reprise of the song coinciding with Charlotte's death. Pamelyn Ferdin (well known as Lucy Van Pelt in several "Peanuts" TV specials and movies) delights with her own singing abilities in "There Must Be Something More." I think I can understand why E.B. White didn't care for the songs, but they are well-crafted nevertheless, and kids should love them, especially the more upbeat songs like "I Can Talk" and "Chin Up." "Zuckerman's Famous Pig" and "Charlotte's Lullaby" would later be covered by The Brady Bunch.

But the voice acting is what really MAKES the film. I do find Henry Gibson's (R.I.P.) Wilbur a little grating and overacted at times, but some might say he captures the essence of the character perfectly, as Wilbur does tend to be given over to histrionics, which even Charlotte recognizes ("Wilbur, I FORBID you to faint!"). Debbie Reynolds' Charlotte is perfectly cast - her voice is soft, gentle, and tender, yet doesn't detract from Charlotte's intelligence and craftiness. Pamelyn Ferdin as Fern impresses with the mature qualities of her voice and her great emotional range (she's become an animal rights activist since, which considering Fern's initial saving of Wilbur from the chopping block, is apropos). But it's "Bewitched" veterans Agnes Moorehead and Paul Lynde (R.I.P. to them both) who really steal the show as the Goose and Templeton respectively, with their hilarious deliveries of some rather catty lines. Paul Lynde in particular was well-cast as Wilbur's somewhat reluctant ally, Templeton, whose catty and sarcastic remarks are always a highlight.

All in all, the 1973 "Charlotte's Web" is still a delight to watch years later. Kids (provided today's kids have the patience for something without Disney/Pixar's bells and whistles) will be delighted by the characters and the fun songs; adults will appreciate the message about the gullible side of human nature that they might have missed the first time around. I haven't seen the live-action 2006 remake or CW2: Wilbur's Great Adventure but I doubt they could be as magical. 9/10 stars.

Deadly Women

An Entertaining - But Not Flawless - Guilty Pleasure
First off, this series explores a realm where few other true-crime shows fail to tread - the world of female killers. That alone makes this show unique and worth a look. It combines re-enactments (in fact, 100% re-enactments - no actual photos of the perpetrators or victims are ever shown) with interviews with experts such as former FBI profiler Candice DeLong (who appears in every episode) and others related to the cases. Except for a few early episodes, all the cases profiled are from English-speaking countries - the United States, the U.K., Canada, and Australia usually. And the warning at the beginning of each episode should be taken very seriously - the re-enactments are often extremely violent and don't spare the gory details.

The cases profiled run the gamut from women who killed their children (several episodes deal with that subject) to torture slayers to thrill killers to black widows. In fact, the number of episodes dealing with mothers who murder their children is staggering - "Kill Their Own," "The Sacred Bond," "Sacrifice Their Blood," and "Bury Their Babies" to name just a few - and these are often the hardest to watch. Given that the series is still going strong after four years, they have yet to run out of sexy stories about "deadly women." Watching this show can be a real education on some of the most notorious female murderers of all time. It's also extremely addictive and I never miss a new episode.

That said, this show isn't perfect, and there are a few issues I have with it.

First, the narration and the writing in the re-enactments are often needlessly lurid and over-the-top (in earlier episodes, it is less so). When the narrator reads lines like "Children rely on their mother for nourishment, but tonight, Lydia (Sherman) is serving death," I can't help but start giggling, even though the subject matter isn't at all funny.

Second, as I mentioned above, photographs of the perpetrators and their victims are never shown, and although there are occasional black-and-white freeze-frames, these are obviously of the actors and not actual photos of those involved, and this makes it difficult to take the show seriously at times and robs it of some authenticity, if that makes any sense. There are times when the actors look nothing at all like the real people, as was the case with Beverley Allitt, the British nurse who was jailed for murdering four infant children in the early 1990s.

Third, this show is made in Australia, which means the roles in the dramatizations are all played by Australian actors. Obviously this isn't a problem for stories that took place in Australia, but when it comes to stories that took place in the United States, where the dialect of English spoken is quite different, it can, again, be a problem in terms of authenticity/believability. The scripts contain a lot of Australian-isms that Americans wouldn't say - such as using the word "tart" to describe a man's mistress, or using the word "bashing" to describe a beating - and the actors do varying jobs of hiding their Australian accents, which some (like Andrew Fritz, who is actually an American living in Australia) do remarkably well while others don't even try. I feel if they wanted to use non-American talent to save costs, they should have used Canadian actors for the American and Canadian cases. On the other hand, the acting itself is usually very good and the actors themselves (aside from the occasional failure to hide the Australian accent when needed) are talented, and the actresses portraying the "deadly women" usually do a very good job of making the subject seem extra scary (see Susan Eubanks and Tillie Gburek).

Now it may seem like I'm really ragging on this show, but as I said, despite its faults, it's extremely addictive and even more than a little educational. The interview segments with forensic pathologist Janis Amatuzio are particularly interesting, as one can learn all kinds of interesting things about the human body and how it reacts to certain things that are done to it.

Despite the occasional "tabloid"-ish nature of some of the stories and occasional credibility issues based on the production values, and despite what I feel is occasionally an over-reliance on violence and gore, this is an engaging and entertaining show, and a fun way to pass an evening. Never before has the subject of female killers seemed so enticing. However, it's not recommended for the weak of stomach.

Serendipity monogatari pure to no nakamatachi

Childhood memories
Just to clarify the previous reviewer's comment... the Serendipity book series were NOT Japanese in origin although this TV series is. It's not uncommon for a Japanese animation studio to adapt a popular work of Western literature into anime, although it was considerably more common in the '60s, '70s and '80s. One company (Nippon Animation) actually built an entire franchise around it (the World Masterpiece Theater). But I digress...

This TV series originally aired in Japan in 1983, but although a number of European countries got the entire series intact, all Americans got was a 90-minute feature-length edit of several TV episodes, released (apparently) direct to video in 1989 by Celebrity Home Entertainment. The video edit can be found on YouTube. The company that produced this anime, Zuiyo Enterprises, is probably best known for the acclaimed 1974 TV series "Heidi, Girl of the Alps" (made with the involvement of Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki - in fact, an assistant of Miyazaki's, Keiji Hayakawa who also worked on other series including "Urusei Yatsura" and "Belle and Sebastian", was involved in this work).

The animation is mostly good by the standards of early 1980s TV anime, and holds up fairly well today. Upon watching the video edit the colors do look slightly washed out, but that may be due to its age. Jim Terry, who produced many similar feature-length compilation films in the '80s from anime TV series, is responsible for the dubbing job, which is a mixed bag. Pila-Pila never fails to make me laugh, but the kid Bobby (apparently known as Kona in the original version) is annoying. Watching the video edit, it also becomes very apparent when they transition from Takeo Watanabe's original score into the additional music composed by "Bullets" for the U.S. version - suffice to say, the Japanese score is far superior, and while Bullets' songs are pleasant for the most part ("Paradise" would be my favorite), they are unmemorable, and I would have rather heard more of the original Japanese music.

All in all though, it's still an enjoyable watch, and a capsule of a Japanese kids' anime that got far better treatment overseas than it did in the country where the character of Serendipity was created. The sardonic "bad seed" Pila-Pila alone is worth the price of admission.

Ai no wakakusa monogatari

Childhood memories rekindled
Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theatre shows seem to be popular just about everywhere in the world except the United States. Only three series from the classic WMT run (1975-1996) have ever been released in the U.S. - "Tom Sawyer" (1980), "Swiss Family Robinson" (1981), and this series, known as "Ai no Wakakusa Monogatari" ("Tale of Love's Young Grass") in Japan. The English dub version, by Saban, first aired on U.S. TV around 1988 or so on HBO (yes, the entire series run made it here), and is now showing again on TBN's Christian kids' channel, "Smile of a Child." Through the airings on Smile of a Child I became acquainted with this classic series once again. This review will focus on the English dub as it is the only version I have seen at length (although I have seen a few clips of the Japanese and know it was wonderfully acted as well, and frankly the Japanese theme songs are incredibly catchy and far superior to the English one, and I find myself humming them without understanding a word of the lyrics).

Most already know the basic premise of the show and the novel on which it is based so I won't go into that, except to say that the first twenty or so episodes, as the earlier reviewer indicated, were original works of scriptwriter Akira Miyazaki intended to set the stage and educate Japanese viewers about the American Civil War. Once the series starts to follow Alcott's book, it does so pretty closely, despite a few name changes that same unnecessary (i.e. Concord becoming "Newcord"; and also, Meg's love interest, John Brooke, was for some reason renamed "Carl" in the Japanese, but in English his name is again John).

Having seen parts of the earlier anime adaptations of Little Women by Toei in 1980 and 1981, I will agree this is by far the best. The series fleshes out the stories better than the 1981 series did (for example, the fight between Jo and Amy after Amy ***SPOILER*** burns up Jo's book in a hissy fit*** takes up three episodes in this series, while the 1981 series only needed one), so I guess it could be said that the 1981 series has better dramatic power because it moves faster; this 1987 series definitely takes its time, but the slow pace definitely works for me, although those accustomed to more action may become bored by it. The music is beautiful, and I was pleased to note upon watching the English version on Smile of a Child that although Saban replaced the Japanese theme songs and opening/closing, they did NOT do what they did with virtually every other anime they got a hold of, which is replace the Japanese score with kiddie-crap rinky-dink music by Haim Saban and Shuki Levy. All of Kazuo Otani's score is here for English viewers to enjoy.

This show may be 25 years old as of this year, but it doesn't look it... the character designs by Yoshifumi Kondo (which lend more than a little bit of Studio Ghibli vibe, something that is even more evident in the 1993 sequel, "Little Women II: Jo's Boys") are attractive, and the animation quality stays consistently good through the series, keeping the timeless quality found in all of Nippon Animation's WMT series from Anne of Green Gables onward. There is incredible attention to detail in just about every facet of the animation and art. The only fault I have with the series in its English dub version is the voices, which vary in quality. Most of the characters are well acted, except for Laurie, whose voice actor has a tendency to deadpan his lines. Jo also sounds a bit deadpan at times, which is unfortunate as the series really revolves around her for the most part. However, I love Rebecca Forstadt (aka Lynn Minmay from Robotech and Mihoshi from Tenchi Muyo!, doing the role here under her stage name Reba West) as Amy, who also provides the role of narrator. The biggest problem with the dub is the dialogue which tends to be extremely stilted, awkward, and formal, especially in the later episodes. From what I have seen of the Japanese version, the Japanese voice actors sound more sincere and seem like they put more feeling in their roles. Overall, it's still a competent dub, better than those of some other Saban-distributed series. The flawed performance of some of the dub voices, though, as well as the ridiculously formal dialogue, is why I knocked this title down a star. Most likely the original Japanese would be a solid 10 stars.

Overall, a good series for fans of classic American literature, old school anime, and/or good, clean family-friendly entertainment. It's meant to be a kids' show but adults will find much to like as well.

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