Weekend programs for children suffer from adult perceptions


September 15, 1990|By STEVE MCKERROW

One of the unfortunate effects of adulthood is losing the ability to see things through a child's eyes. In turn, that produces a tendency to decide what's best for the little beings through myopic adult perceptions.

Grumble, grumble. While it is hard to fault their good intentions, some new youth-oriented programs this weekend suffer from that skewed adult perspective.

* First comes "Captain Planet and The Planeteers," an animated weekly series airing at 7:30 a.m. Saturdays on WMAR-Channel 2 and also at 8:30 Sundays on cable's TBS service.The obvious and praiseworthy intent is to provide an environmentally sensitive answer to the familiar robot/super hero/slimy villain genre of cartoon excess.

The show is a production of Turner Broadcasting, whose chairman, Ted Turner, is spreading an environmental emphasis through many of his broadcast enterprises. It features a cast of well-known voices.

Whoopi Goldberg, for instance, is Gaia, the spirit of the Earth, who awakes from a century's nap to discover, humans "are going to destroy my planet if they keep going like this."

She assembles The Planeteers, a band of young people from around the world, to combat threats to the environment. And when things are tough, they can pool their gifts from Gaia to summon Captain Planet who, while not exactly singing, "here I come to save the planet," is sort of the Mighty Mouse of environmental action.

Certainly there is no arguing that young people need to develop a sense of responsibility toward the world we all live upon. But doing so through the same cynical format by which adult corporations sell toys, sweet cereals and other goods to kids seems like the wrong approach. For one thing, most kids learn early on to tune out the hype.

Worse, the message itself is wrong-headed, at least in today's premiere. The show presents a villain named Hoggish Greedly (the voice of Ed Asner) and his weaselly sidekick Rigger (John Ratzenberger from "Cheers"). They operate a huge, "Star Wars" like oil drilling device that is raping a wildlife preserve, producing an oil spill.

Animated depictions of waterfowl and shore creatures, too familiar from the Alaska oil spill and many others, emphasize the harm.

But here is the problem: Kids need to understand that most environmental problems stem from the fact there are no easily identifiable villains who produce pollution maliciously, as Greedly does. Rather, they grow from the societal conflict between consumption of oil, lumber, electric power and chemicals and the need to protect nature.

No super hero can solve that problem. And judging from the way some young people of close acquaintance nag their parents into recycling programs and other sound conservation practices, the understanding is already taking hold.

Indeed, the best part of "Captain Planet" comes at the end, in a pre-credits trailer as young viewers are urged to encourage their families to practice energy consumption in the home. So why not build a show around believable characters rather than people with ridiculous super powers?

* Continuing its series of adaptations (including "Lyle, Lyle Crocodile," "Madeline" and the series "Babar"), the HBO premium cable service this week unveils two new half-hour animated musical versions of memorable children's books: "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel," by Virginia Lee Burton, and "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day," by Judith Viorst.

"Mike Mulligan" repeats at 9 a.m. tomorrow (with more repeats Sept. 21, 26 and 29) and "Alexander" debuts at 8 a.m. today (with repeats due in October).

Both are very well done, with nice animated reproduction of the original book art, talented voice performers (such as comedian Robert Klein reading "Mike Mulligan") and the addition of original songs.

So what is the problem? It is simply this: BOOKS DO NOT HAVE TO BECOME TV SHOWS -- EVER.

At a time when reading for pleasure is a threatened pastime among kids, why further emphasize the trend? These shows could be seen as suggesting, in effect: Hey kids, don't bother reading this now, wait for the TV show! It will have songs and even dancing steam shovels!

Sure, these new shows are far better than the average children's fare on the tube. But the books upon which they are based were, are and should always be sufficient in themselves to tickle a child's sense of wonder and delight.

Make good TV shows, don't mess around with good books. They can never be the same again.

* In recognition of its young viewing audience, the MTV cable network this week launched an hourlong documentary report, "Sex in the 90s," the latest special in a series of reports on our changing popular culture. It can be seen on the basic cable service at 10 tonight and again tomorrow night.

And while the show does a fair job of surveying how sexual attitudes have changed over the years, it is easy to fear that young viewers will think from the frantic, quick-cut format that sex is something that must be accomplished in a very few seconds.

Certainly no thought, observation, statistic or visual image is on the screen longer than maybe five seconds. Instead, you see this shotgun pastiche of rock stars talking about sex, people-in-the-street responding to questions, or presentations of statistics from an MTV survey about sex.

One second Boy George is saying that "eating and making love" come equally naturally. The next, it is the lead singer of Kiss calling sex, "the most dangerous thing I can think of right now." Rock and roll is credited with making the sexual revolution "virtually inevitable" while Madonna says that AIDS "has turned everybody into, like, these '50s monsters."

The insult here is the implicit assumption by MTV's adult producers, who have refined the quick-image technique to a fine point, that today's young people cannot sit and absorb material presented in a more leisurely, thoughtful fashion.

Both sex and considering complicated sexual issues are much better that way.

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