Stan and Jan Berenstain’s stories work because they blend the slightly tacky, garish illustrations children love with humor that works for all generations. Add some social consciousness (the problem here: Sister Bear is a better athlete than her brother) and unexpected morals (“There’s such a thing as a bad winner too”), and you get tapes “We want to watch again, okay, Mom?” (Random House, $14.95; 800-733-3000)
ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN, THE BOY DETECTIVE: THE CASE OF THE MISSING TIME CAPSULE
Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, hero of more than a dozen novels by Donald J. Sobol, is a condensed, Americanized, updated young Sherlock Holmes, whose Watson is a little blond named Sally. For all his know-it-all tendencies, he’s an appealing kid, and that appeal translates in this live-action film taken from Sobol’s stories.
The 55-minute tape, which appeared on HBO this year, was shot in Provo, Utah, with local actors in many roles. It was directed by Hollywood vet Savage Steve (Better Off Dead) Holland. Scott Bremner, 11, plays E.B. with the right tone of juvenile pomposity. Laura Bridges, 12, is an affable Sally, and she’s big enough to pummel E.B.’s nemesis, Bugs Meany (Dion Zamora). Of the grown-ups, Tiana Pierce as Mrs. Brown and Alan Merrill as a semijaded rock star are best.
The plot has Encyclopedia, who wants to be a rock drummer and roots for the Chicago Cubs, solving a theft of a time capsule in his hometown, Idaville. The story, building to a celebration including a concert by the rock star, moves briskly, and E.B. winds things up with clever deductions.
Writer D.J. MacHale added a few nice jokes. In one scene, E.B. and Sally, consulting their computerized bank of suspects, pass images of Barbra Streisand, Richard Nixon and David Letterman while searching out the real culprits. (Hi-Tops, $14.95)
(Thad Novak, 9, adds: “The story in itself is good, but there is almost no connection between the tape and Sobol’s books. For instance, the plot is more typical of the Three Investigators series. And in the Sobol books, Encyclopedia doesn’t play the drums and he doesn’t wear’s clothes that make him look like a rock star.”)
THE TELEPHONE DOCTOR
Sorry, kids, this isn’t somebody who fixes a play phone so it makes those 900-number calls to Nintendo and Jose Canseco.
It is, instead, 21 long minutes featuring puppets from a St. Louis troupe, the Peppercorn Players. The tape shows a character called Auntie Bella baby-sitting for three children. They misuse the phone while she is in the bathtub. Then they visit the “telephone doctor,” a real person, to learn where they’ve gone wrong.
This is a tape of exclamations—”Oh, I could just hug your ears off!” “Here I am, my little rootie-tooties!” It’s also a video equivalent of an 87-pound cornball.
But watching it—parents and youngsters can yuk it up at the tape, not with it—provides an excuse to talk to children about proper phone answering, how to use a phone in an emergency and how a child home alone should answer a call. (Kids Vids, $24.45; 800-882-9911)
READ ME A STORYTIME
Rrrrrribbett. Jack Harper is a magic frog. Ehhh-heh-heh-heh. Harper is a wicked witch. Snork, snork. Now Harper is a snoozing cook in a bewitched castle.
Trying to enthrall tiny tots, Jack Harper is sometimes positively goofy in this five-part series of tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. But then there are no costumes, no props, no players, just Jack in his cardigan, reading in front of a forest of painted birches on a backdrop.
Volume 1 offers Briar Rose, Rapunzel and a rather dull Old Sultan, about a farmer and his toothless mutt. Volume 2 includes Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White. In Volume 3 Harper, an aspiring actor with a fine arts degree from New York’s Columbia University, reads Rumpelstiltskin, then Hansel and Grethel. Weary of the classics? Volume 5 is reserved for the more obscure Spirit in the Bottle, The Elves and Hans in Luck.
The storytelling is deliberately devoid of visual treats; this collection of tapes (each about 30 minutes) is designed to stimulate young imaginations and develop reading and memory skills. A companion pamphlet offers parents and teachers suggestions for postvideo workshops.
Though Harper works up a shiny sweat trying to captivate his viewers, the production’s sound quality gets downright tinny at times. Better audio would have translated into the better to hear you with, my dear, and better direction would have protected Jack from seeming such a silly boy. (Relax Video, $29.95 each, $125 for the set; 212-496-4400)
READ TO ME
Hollie Stanaland is better at luring us into a land of slumbering beauties, mean stepsisters and grandmas that look strangely like big bad wolves. Her voice is warm and full, her manner come-sit-by-me cozy. Settled in an easy chair by a fire that can be heard crackling, the Mill Valley, Calif., librarian dips into her “treasure book” on these three 40-minute tapes.
Volume l’s delights, aimed at children from 2 to 7, begin with The Three Bears, which Hollie narrates in a great-big-poppa-bear voice, a middle-size-mama-bear voice and a little-tiny-baby-bear voice. A few poems geared to short attention spans follow. Then Hollie moves into The Three Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella. Volume 2 (ages 5 to 10) brings alive such tales as Jack and the Beanstalk and Beauty and the Beast. Volume 3 (8 and up) offers Jabberwocky and Aesop’s Fables, among other stories. This is a varied menu for a broad audience with an appetite for magic. (Emerald Video, $29.95 each, $69.95 the set; 800-383-8811)