Monday, October 16, 2006

Hey kids! Look! Eloise!

One of the perks of reviewing as much stuff as I have is that publishers and studios send me free stuff. The expectation, of course, is for me to review it. Normally I'll send my reviews in to RevolutionSF or Green Man Review, but sometimes, the review material has nothing whatsoever to do with genre. This is one of those times, so I'm posting the review here for all to enjoy. Don't you feel special?
Me, Eloise
Reviewed by Jayme Lynn Blaschke
Format: Movie
Genre: Animation
Released: October 10, 2006 (DVD release)

I'm aware of the Eloise books written by Kay Thompson and illustrated by Hilary Knight, but that's about as far as it goes. I've never read any of the series, and if pressed, I'd probably characterize them as something kind of like the Madeline books, only set in New York instead of France. And yes, I know that was the sound of a thousand Eloise fans' heads exploding. I'm fine with that, because this review isn't for them--it's for everyone else out there who's less familiar with Eloise than I am.

The plot of Me, Eloise is relatively straightforward. Eloise (voice by Mary Matilyn Mouser) lives on the top floor of the swanky Plaza hotel with Nanny (Vanessa Redgrave) in lieu of her absentee mother. Her sixth birthday is looming, and Eloise is excited about her upcoming party. All is well until a Japanese violin prodigy, Yuko, moves into the Plaza with her parents, and Eloise's initial attempts to make friends end in failure. It's not long, however, before the two girls bond and Eloise learns that Yuko's constant violin practice precludes any fun. Eloise sets out to correct this travesty, and hijinks, predictably, ensue.

The last animation based on a beloved children's book series I saw was the travesty called Curious George, and going into Me, Eloise, I was deeply concerned that I'd be sitting through 45 minutes of watered down milquetoast pablum. Curious George, you see, left a bad taste in my mouth. So imagine my surprise when--mere seconds into the show--I realize that the animation bears more than a passing resemblance to King of the Hill! A little online sleuthing confirms my suspicions: Creative director Wes Archer not only served as director of numerous episodes of King of the Hill, he also served as executive animation consultant and supervising director on that series, not to mention the work he's done on Futurama and The Simpsons. To put it bluntly, this guy's built up some impressive credits on three of the best television series broadcast over the past decade.

Which is all fine and dandy, but what has he done for me lately? How about making an Eloise cartoon that's almost as watchable for adults as it is for children? That's not to say Archer completely avoids the Curious George trap--I have a gut feeling that some teeth have been pulled from the source material and some of the rough edges sanded down to make the end product more palatable for the studio's preconceptions about what constitutes good children's programming. But having not read the books, this feeling's only a twinge. Beyond that, it's an amusing romp of little girl mayhem that never, thankfully, gets too saccharine. The realistic approach to characters that made King of the Hill so appealing is on full display here, and serves the story well. If Eloise abandons her grudge against Yuko too quickly, well, that can be forgiven in light of her being allowed to have that grudge in the first place. And like King of the Hill, the climax of the story is personal in nature as opposed to forced, slapstick action or an overly-preachy message. It's a fun diversion my daughters enjoy enough so that I'm looking into picking up some of the Eloise books for bedtime reading. If nothing else, that should make Kay Thompson happy.


The extras are somewhat impressive for what I initially assumed was a direct-to-DVD release--as was the animation--but I've since learned that Eloise is an ongoing series broadcast on the Starz Kids & Family channel. Even so, the bonus features are a notch above what is normally found on children's DVDs. The 45-minute show is presented both in widescreen and full-frame versions, which is convenient for those folks who've already made the switch over to wide screen televisions and ought to be a standard feature on DVDs by now. Ditto the Spanish language track. The Sing-Along-Song is merely a clip from the show, and nothing to write home about, and the Weenie to the Rescue DVD game is one of those point-and-click exercises that entertain children exactly once before it becomes boring. The Birthday Party Invitation Maker is interesting for those with a DVD-capable computer, but the drawback is that children making Eloise invitations are going to want to print out every single variation they create, which could put a serious crimp in the ink budget. Plaza Pals is a point-and-click tour narrated by Eloise of the various characters in the show, which is another of the features that will be accessed once and never again. Perhaps the most interesting and involving feature is From Paper to Movie, which uses a split screen format to compare the show's storyboards to the finished product through an extended sequence. One of the problems of the Disney releases of the Studio Ghibli films is the awkward presentation of the storyboards--devoting an entire second disc to the storyboards seems like a tremendous waste of resources. Me, Eloise avoids this problem by showing the movie and storyboards in parallel, allowing the differences to show through and shining light on the creative process. It's not a perfect solution, but it is engaging. The only thing missing, really, is a commentary track, but I seriously doubt that's going to be coming soon for anything considered a children's release.

The Movie Itself: 7 out of 10
The DVD Features: 6 out of 10

Oh, and in the interest of full disclosure, I've got another Eloise disc I'll be reviewing later this week, along with an actual boxed set of a show near and dear to my heart I'll probably write up for RevSF.

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