For those unfamiliar with the Scholastic Video Collection, this series, produced by Weston Woods, takes popular children’s picture books and adapts them for film. In some cases the original artwork appears with Ken Burns’ effect--a pan-and-scan that adds some motion--while in other cases a single feature (like the tail of a dog, for example) might be animated to suggest movement.
It’s rare than there’s any more animation than that, but I think it preserves the integrity of the books to incorporate the original artwork rather than doing a complete animated adaptation. These are quite literally books-on-DVD, and in the case of these six Mo Willems stories, Willems himself—and his wife, daughter, Cher, and a fellow children’s book author—supply the voices. And the animation? It’s about as animated as this series gets, while still remaining faithful to the books.
Six stories come packaged on two separate DVDs, which are available separately: “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! . . . and more stories by Mo Willems,” and “The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! . . . and more stories by Mo Willems.” There aren’t as many stories on these two discs as there are on other Scholastic/Weston entries, replaced by more bonus features with the spotlight on Willems.
“Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” is very simply drawn tale that has an even simpler concept. A bus driver tells readers that he’s taking a break, and while he’s away, don’t let the pigeon drive the bus. Pigeon skulks, pleads, connives, gets angry, and finally sulks. And in the end (yeah, spoilers are okay in reviews of children’s book videos, because parents want to know the whole story) he sees a semi truck parked and decides THAT’S what he’ll drive. Pigeon has quite the temper, but it can be used as a teaching moment, because all of the approaches he tries on the reader are the same kind of approaches (and reactions to “no”) that a preschooler or young elementary school student might use. The book Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus won Caldecott Honors, and the animated short of the book won the Carnegie Medal.
Based on Mo Willems’ Caldecott and Andrew Carnegie Medal-winning picture book, “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale” is a warm-hearted story within a story that captures children’s interest (adults, too!) in a number of ways. We watch as young Trixie looks at a family photo scrapbook and hears the story of “Knuffle Bunny.” The animation is minimalist, which puts the focus squarely on the relationship between the father and daughter. And you know what? They really model the perfect relationship. It’s like watching “The Cosby Show” all over again, with that winning combination of humor, warmth, and closeness that makes dad seem like a friend as much as he is a parent.
Once the story gets going, we learn how one day Knuffle Bunny was lost at the laundromat, and how everyone scrambled to get Trixie’s favorite stuffed animal back again. The tale itself is one that just about every child can identify with, but it’s the animation and voiceover narration from the author himself that make this so spellbinding. Willems uses actual black-and-white photos of old brownstones and parks as backgrounds for his drawings. To see a hand-drawn color squirrel scampering up a black-and-white photographic tree is arresting, and so is the rest of the drawing and animation. The characters literally walk from page to page, and it’s one of the finest stories I’ve seen produced in this series. A 10, folks, and you know how stingy I can be. But it’s going to appeal mostly to toddlers. Though all ages should be able to enjoy it, the subject matter will be quickly dismissed by older preschoolers (boys especially) as “too babyish.” Like “Pigeon,” this video won a Carnegie Medal, while the book won Caldecott Honors.
“Leonardo, the Terrible Monster” is the weakest entry on this disc. It features a little monster named Leonardo who is a terrible monster—meaning, he’s terrible at being a monster. He can’t scare anyone. But one day he thinks he’s found the perfect victim, and tries to scare a little boy. And when the boy cries, he thinks he’s finally done it. Alas, the boy composes himself and shouts a million reasons why he’s crying, and none of them have anything to do with the monster trying to scare him. At this, the monster becomes compassionate and decides to be this little boy’s only friend. The payoff is good, but the story is slower to develop, with more pauses and less interesting narration.
“The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog!” is the first story on the second disc. In it, Pigeon finds a hot dog and is prepared to eat it, when an Aesops-sly little duckling comes along and begins asking all sorts of questions. Like, what does a hot dog taste like? Pigeon can see where this is headed and he wants no part of it. Rather, he wants the hot dog all to himself. But the give-and-take conversation between Pigeon and duckling should amuse little ones, while the payoff is just as strong at the end. Bright idea: Pigeon breaks the hot dog in half and they both enjoy it.
“Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity” also won Caldecott Honors, and is drawn in the same style as the first book, with black-and-white backgrounds and spot color characters and animals and such. In this one, Trixie is older and can now talk up a storm, unlike the language-deficient hero from the first book. And she can’t wait to take Knuffle Bunny to school to show it off on “special” day. Her excitement changes to, well, anger, when she sees that another girl has exactly the same bunny, when she thought hers was an original. Fast-forward to prom night and these kids will feel and act the same way if they see each other in matching dresses. Anyway, they get on each other so much that the teacher is forced to confiscate their bunnies, which forces the two girls to play together. And when the teacher returns the bunnies, she gives each girl the wrong one. At 2:30 in the morning dads are calling each other to make the exchange. Really? Not in my neighborhood. Or lifetime. And we learn that this is the story of how Trixie found her first best friend.
“Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed” is a fanciful little fable in the manner of “Happy Feet” and stories about animals and children who march to different drummers. One naked mole rat decides he likes wearing clothes, and he even goes so far to open a clothing store. But the rest of the naked mole rats are up in arms, because he’s going against tradition. So they appeal to the oldest among them, a hero, to make a pronouncement that will put this little rebel in his place. Instead (of course), the granddaddy of them all decides that clothing isn’t a bad idea for people who like clothes. And it turns out he does. It’s cute enough to hook kids.
Of the six stories, only “Leonardo” is a little weak. The rest should entertain children in the 3-6 age range. Maybe even two year olds. But past kindergarten? Nope.
The video quality is on a par with other Scholastic/Weston releases, with bright colors, very little grain, and a sharpness that’s pleasing to the eye. It’s not HD by any means, but for juvenile video the quality has always been good in this series, and these discs are no exception. The stories are presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
Stories in this series are presented in English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, and while there’s nothing in the sound to blow anyone away, there’s no distortion and the sound seems clear and pure. Good balance of bass and treble, too, with bright high-notes.
There’s considerable overlapping among the features that showcase Willems. In fact, what was fascinating at first—seeing him perform/read from Don’t Let Pigeon Drive the Bus! in front of kindergarteners in a school library—grows tiresome when we keep seeing clips from the same performance. “Mo and Pigeon Visit a School” on the first disc and “Getting to Know Mo Willems” and “Interview with Mo Willems” have all been culled from footage from the same school visit, and the same interview. There’s some repetition, and that’s the annoying part. But parents or would-be children’s book authors will love hearing how Pigeon got off the ground, and the kids should find it interesting seeing the author read and perform his own work.
As for the other bonus features, there’s a “You Yell” version of “Don’t Let Pigeon Drive the Bus!” and a Spanish version of “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale.” And for adults, there’s a featurette about the eight-step process of animating a children’s book for the Scholastic/Weston series. Fans of this series should LOVE this extra. One nice feature for all stories is that there's a read-along mode, so children who grow fond of these can watch them with subtitles and learn to read. The default is Read-along "on."
“Mo Willems’ Pigeon and Pals: Complete Cartoon Collection Vol. 1 & 2” should be a hit with kids ages 3-6 . . . and would-be children’s book authors.