With a new nature show, MPT takes a walk on the wild side Preview: 'Kratts' Creatures' offers a lot to keep young minds purring.

June 03, 1996|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"Kratts' Creatures," a nature show for children debuting today on PBS, is high energy, quick cuts, hot-shot video and lots of driving dance music.

The producers say those are some of the elements sure to make it the next hit with kids who watch public television. But I say those are the very elements that give me pause.

The conventional wisdom among many adult producers says to get kid viewers you have to imitate MTV's video style. But that is based on intuition rather than research. In fact, the newest PBS hit with kids, "Wishbone," which premiered in September, is just the opposite -- quiet, linear, decidedly unhip and relatively slow-paced in its celebration of a Jack Russell terrier named Wishbone and books rather than slickly edited pictures.

Still, beyond my pause (or Wishbone's paws, for that matter), there is a lot to like about "Kratts' Creatures" and at least one reason to be rooting for it to succeed in reaching its target audience of elementary and middle school-age children. Though the series is actually made in Toronto by Paragon Entertainment Corporation, Maryland Public Television is one of the producing partners. Consequently, as "Kratts' Creatures" goes, so will go the national perception of MPT as a source of kids' programming for PBS.

Most likable is the cast -- Martin and Chris Kratt, Shannon Duff and a wise-cracking animated alligator named Ttark. The Kratt brothers -- Martin, 30, is a zoologist, and Chris, 27, is a biologist -- might seem a little long in the tooth for this kind of show. But they manage to generate a childlike enthusiasm for and wonder about nature, which seems genuine, despite an annoying overuse of the adjective "cool" and the phrase "check this out" in the first two episodes available for preview.

The structure of each half-hour episode finds the brothers on adventures looking for "creatures." The first episode, titled "Big Five, Little Five," puts them in South Africa on a scavenger hunt of sorts with one brother looking for the "Big Five" of the region (elephant, rhino, lion, buffalo and leopard) and the other looking for the "Little Five" (elephant shrew, rhino beetle, ant lion, buffalo weaver and leopard tortoise).

Throughout the adventure, the duo is in touch via computer and a large video monitor with 15-year-old Allison Baldwin (Duff), who runs the Creature Club, a research station. The brothers check with Allison for facts on geography and the animal kingdom. Sharing space with Allison and her computer is Ttark, who lives on another video screen. To tell the truth, I like Allison and Ttark more than the brothers, but they are the stars.

The only challenge to their top billing comes from the creatures. The photography that brings them to the small screen is impressive in its intimacy, sense of immediacy and ability to engage you emotionally.

In fact, in terms of emotional impact, a warning is in order for parents of elementary school-age children. There is a segment in "Big Five, Little Five" that you might not want your children to see. It involves a leopard carrying a dead impala up a tree. Impalas look like fawns to me. Maybe I'm just squeamish on the subject of dead animals, but I thought "Bambi" as I looked at the face of the impala that was hanging lifeless in the mouth of the leopard. The shot ran 24 seconds, which seemed needlessly long to me.

The show's gee-whiz tone also seemed jarring when juxtaposed with the image of the dead impala.

"Check this out," Chris Kratt says, "a leopard can carry the dead weight of an impala up a tree. That's some serious power! A leopard is not a creature to mess with."

I know nature is not always pretty. If I didn't know it before watching "Big Five," I did after the Kratt brothers' critique of elephant dung and the footage of a lion relieving itself, while viewers are told, "Nobody makes a stink like a lion." I'm OK with the brothers talking about lion "poop" and rhinoceros "boogers," but I do think a television image of death that is too graphic can be unsettling to some kids in the first or second grades.

In the end, though, any such complaints I have about substance are relatively minor. "Kratts' Creatures" is loaded with substantive information, context and an enlightened point of view about caring for animals and trying to share the world with them.

Premiere episodes do have a tendency to be over the top in their efforts to impress. My hope is that ultimately this series will settle down and quit trying so hard to dazzle with its fancy stylistic footwork.

Like "Wishbone," "Kratts' Creatures" has some important teaching to do. But I fear it will lose its audience if the producers don't respect the young viewers of public television in their willingness and ability to learn.

'Kratts' Creatures'

When: Weekdays at 5 p.m. (This week also at 7: 30 p.m. today through Thursday and 11: 30 a.m. Thursday and Friday.)

Where: MPT-Channels 22, 67

Pub Date: 6/03/96

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