DVDs and CDs for the elementary crowd
From fairies to pandas and penguins, with a little Beethoven thrown in, these movies and music will keep children watching again and again ... and again.
DVDs for elementary-school-age children:
ARCTIC EXPOSURE WITH NIGEL MARVEN (Animal Planet, $24.95)
This fantastic six-part documentary series is perfect for elementary-age children (heading the list of adorable babies are polar bears, harp seals, and arctic foxes). Host Marven manages to evoke both Marlin Perkins and Nigel Thornberry as he enthusiastically guides viewers through a year in one of nature's more forbidding climates. Marven's knowledge is encyclopedic, but he's also not above making snow angels or flinging a cup of boiling water into the air so viewers can see it freeze before it hits the ground. Warning: There are a few nongraphic hunting scenes, but nothing that disturbed my sensitive 6-year-old.
KUNG-FU PANDA (Dreamworks, $29.99)
A roly-poly panda (Jack Black, blessedly toning it down for once) is the improbable Chosen One in this animated action comedy. Dustin Hoffman voices the red panda charged with the task of turning clumsy Po into a Dragon warrior capable of facing the fearsome Tai Lung (Ian McShane), while Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, and Lucy Liu help voice the Furious Five. Nothing can match the opening sequence's stylized animation for sheer "bodacity" (as Po puts it), but "Kung Fu Panda" is as easygoing and good-natured as its hero. Extras include an audio commentary with the directors, a feature on how to help pandas in the wild, a "Kung Fu Fighting" music video, and more.
TINKER BELL (Walt Disney Video, $29.99)
After having placed a tiara on most of the girls in America, Disney is now ready to outfit them with a pair of wings with its new Fairies franchise. The first marketing salvo – er, movie – "Tinker Bell," gives J.M. Barrie's classic fairy a personality makeover. Peter Pan is nowhere in sight (nor is Tink's murderous jealousy). Instead she's a spunky, brand-new fairy who's a little nonplussed by her unglamorous role as tinker for Pixie Hollow. (It's like discovering you're gifted at wood shop when all your friends are heading off to Juilliard.) The CG animation is quite good for direct-to-DVD, the vocal cast includes Oscar-winner Anjelica Huston and Tony-winner Kristin Chenoweth, and the message about learning to value your own abilities is welcome. Parents will need a high tolerance for both commercialism and pixie dust, but girls from 3 to 9 will likely be enthralled.
DVDs for preschoolers:
THE CHRISTMAS TOY (Lyons/HIT Entertainment, $14.98)
The holidays aren't complete in our house without at least one showing of Jim Henson's "The Muppet Christmas Carol" and "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas," a down-home version of "The Gift of the Magi" that deserves a larger following in these cash-strapped times. So it was with great anticipation that we popped in this 1986 Emmy-nominated TV special, available for the first time on DVD. Rugby, an egocentric tiger, gets the shock of his life when his little girl gets a new present for Christmas: a space warrior named Meteora. There are a number of plot similarities with "Toy Story," and the songs are Muppetish without being memorable. (Mew, the cat toy, however, is a character for the ages.) But that's an adult talking – my son wanted to watch this one three days in a row.
LITTLE EINSTEINS: THE CHRISTMAS WISH (Walt Disney Video, $19.99)
Preschoolers are big fans of this Disney Channel staple, which incorporates classical music and visual art in each globe-trotting episode. The winter-themed DVD showcases an Einstein version of "The Nutcracker" (with music by Peter Tchaikovsky and art by Edgar Degas), a treasure hunt where the quartet of children look for a Christmas box atop Mt. Everest, and a desperate race to recover their show-and-tell items from the thieving Big Jet. Trusty Rocket is on hand to make sure everyone gets home safely.
PINGU'S SOUTH POLE ADVENTURES (Lyons/HIT Entertainment, $14.98)
The claymation penguin has been a star in Europe since the 1980s, with sweetly goofy antics voiced entirely in "Pinguish" (a vaguely Italian-accented gibberish). These silent shorts are ideal for toddlers, but I defy you not to grin as Pingu bops along in time to music or turns himself into a clay ball and goes rolling across the snow.
TREASURY OF 20 STORYBOOK CLASSICS (Scholastic, $29.95)
We're huge fans of Karma Wilson, and the author narrates her own "Bear Snores On" and "Bear Wants More" in Scholastic's new four-disc collection. Other highlights include Beverly Cleary's "The Mouse and the Motorcycle"; "Henry Hikes to Fitchburg," elegantly narrated by James Naughton, which introduces children to the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau; and the funny "Diary of a Spider" by Doreen Cronin of "Click Clack Moo" fame. Scholastic also has a new release of seven multicultural holiday stories, "The Night Before Christmas," with Anthony Edwards narrating Clement Clark Moore's classic poem and Alfre Woodard reading "Seven Candles for Kwanzaa."
CDs for children of all ages:
BEETHOVEN'S WIG 4 – DANCE ALONG SYMPHONIES (Rounder, $14.98)
Anyone who can work "Brian Boitano" into a rhyme just might deserve the 40 or so parenting and educational awards this musical series has racked up. Richard Perlmutter pairs classical war horses with funny lyrics that may delight parents even more than kids. (Indeed, a couple of the songs – such as "A Masterpiece" – might just sail over the heads of the under-7 crowd.) There's a song here to tickle every family member's funny bone. My son walks around the house singing the lyrics to "Oh No!" a Perils of Pauline-style epic set to "The Maple Leaf Rag," while my husband and I cried with laughter during "I Want My Diploma," set to "Pomp and Circumstance." While my son prefers "Midnight Snack," set to the "Habanera" from "Carmen," our hands-down favorite is "Beep Beep Beep" – about a traffic jam and sung to Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata."
BLUE MOO (Rounder, $11.98)
It's not every songwriter who can get Brian Wilson to sing along to her Beach Boys homage. Children's author/songwriter Sandra Boynton and her son Keith create a barnyard-filled bebop album with a little help from everyone from B.B. King to Neil Sedaka. "Blue Moo" doesn't quite reach the zany heights of Boynton's "Philadelphia Chickens," but it's populated by enough racing turtles, swinging hippos, and tangoing rabbits to get anyone's toes tapping. Look out for periodic invasions by the "Uninvited Loud Precision Marching Band," "a swell brigade" that will have grown-ups snickering with laughter.
POP FLY (Carpet Square, $15.98)
Chicago singer/songwriter Justin Roberts pens odes to crossing guards, Little League, stay-at-home dads, and Grandma's cookies in an album so genial it won the No. 1 children's album of the year in the annual Fids and Kamily Top 10 list. Our family's favorite was the Edward Lear-esque "Henrietta's Hair," about a girl whose long locks provide shelter for an assortment of insects.
TABBY ROAD (Monkey Mama, $14.95)
Seattle-based trio Recess Monkey turns out an excellent follow-up to last year's imaginative concept album "Wonderstuff." Side A of "Tabby Road" features slices of life, such as the infectious "S-L-Double E-P-Over" and loose-tooth ode "Dr. Wiggle." Side B is a homage to the Beatles' "Abbey Road," with a monster mash of critters hiding under the bed, scolding mummies, Loch Ness sea creatures who can't remember to pick up after themselves, and a surprisingly delicate ode to the "Wolfman."