Classic stories on home video give children gentle lessons in the arts and the Bible
Ray Bolger has a way of bringing a lively humanity to almost anything he does, and his work in a new cassette called ``Peter and the Wolf and Other Tales'' is no exception. The tape, a recent release from Vestron's Children's Video Library, offers some gentle lessons in the arts, not only through the stories themselves but by means of Bolger's artful style as a narrator who introduces the tales and makes occasional appearances as a kind of friendly bird watcher. Bolger is clearly addressing himself to kids with his slow-paced, painstaking enunciation, but his approach is never patronizing.
Against Prokofiev's superbly descriptive score, Bolger narrates ``Peter and the Wolf'' while the story is performed silently by live actors and a real bird, duck, cat, and wolf (or what appears to be a wolf). The animals go through their paces quite believably, but there must have been trouble making the wolf seem sinister, because he looked like a well-trained pet on a leash in one shot. And I suspect both children and adults will cringe at another scene in which the wolf is bound up with a rope .
Some small children may also shudder at Bolger's disclosure that the duck is still alive in the wolf's belly after being swallowed whole. But this version of the story has a new twist that softens the traditional fatalistic Russian ending: The duck is sneezed out of the wolf and waddles off into the forest.
Will kids make much of the music, or even remember it? Since it's on a home video, they well may. One advantage of this medium is its repeatability. Although a Vestron spokesman said this tape was intended primarily for rental use rather than sale, even during the rental period, children who like the story can play the cassette over and over -- and in the process perhaps absorb some of Bolger's well-gauged mini-lectures on the arts. `Beware the Jabberwock'
``Beware the Jabberwock'' -- the second story on the cassette -- is a charming poetry lesson masquerading as a fantasy tale. The dialogue leads children along a delightful chain of poems that are woven into the adventures of a little girl and the rotund, ex-man-eating dragon of the title. In the Scheherazade-like story, she quotes poets from Langston Hughes to Robert Louis Stevenson -- a trick that turns things in her favor after she is captured by the comic-dragon ``jabberwock'' (a name from Lewis Car roll). This blue-and-pink creature serves as an image of ignorance, awakened by poetry to the miracle of his own understanding. `The Ugly Duckling'
The third tale, ``The Ugly Duckling,'' introduces kids to still another art form by performing the well-known Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale through dance. A young man who is considered a misfit by his family joins a local troupe and discovers dance -- and at the same time discovers himself. Bolger, who was one of the great comedy dancers of the American theater, is the perfect teacher for this section of the tape. Besides narrating the story and delivering some simple, deeply perceptive lines abou t dance, he gives a brief but effective personal demonstration of how dance can speak without words.
Seven ``animated vignettes'' are offered in a new video cassette for children, ``Bible Stories From the Old Testament,'' from Vestron. With a few exceptions, they approach their subject matter with straightforward narration and sometimes interesting visual effects. The first story of creation in Genesis uses a range of animation techniques -- from silhouettes to glimpses of artworks by the old masters -- against a background narration.
Moving cutouts represent Adam and Eve in the second section, with dialogue interspersed with the Bible quotations. ``Noah's Ark'' has a more standard animation, while the treatments of Moses and of Samson and Delilah take on on a Cecil B. de Mille-ish grandness at times, though not fatally so.
In ``David and Goliath,'' the Biblical combat scene is embellished with some extra parrying and more than one attempt by David before he hits his target with the stone from his sling. ``Jonah and the Whale,'' on the other hand, has a lightheartedness whose sometimes comic tone threatens at first to trivialize its subject. But eventually this approach comes closer to making a real person of its hero than the other stories are able to with their strait-laced treatment.