`Kingdom Chums': kid-vid religion on prime-time network TV

THREE children watch in wonder as a beam of light enters the room. Mysterious and purposeful, it scoops them up and whooshes them through a computer screen, where they find themselves transformed into cartoon figures in a ``magical place.'' If this sounds like typical children's TV fare, the events that follow suggest this program may be something else. ``The Kingdom Chums: Little David's Adventure'' - a special airing tonight from 8 to 9 p.m. on ABC - is a more outspoken religious message than viewers are used to seeing in prime time.

Creatively, the program easily qualifies as high-quality children's entertainment. Animation is cleverly mixed with effective ``real life'' characters, and much of the action is carried by appealing animals. Some of the content falls into that broad category networks sometimes describe as ``inspirational.'' In ``Kingdom Chums,'' qualities like ``courage'' and ``faith'' are part of the lively, upbeat message.

But reaction to the message will also depend on a viewer's individual tolerance of the show's free-wheeling treatment of religious themes, and its use of fantasy, magic, and symbolism in delivering Judeo-Christian messages. These flow through the dialogue and the show's bouncy musical numbers. Healings are portrayed in both the animated and live-action sections. Stuffed animals are used to symbolize Old and New Testament biblical figures, including Jesus (who does not actually appear in this story).

These stuffed animals usher three real-life children into Old Testament times, through what one of the animals calls ``the inborn knowledge of our ancestors, who witnessed the greatest stories of all.'' The production links this ancient past to technology and modern ethnic themes quite effectively at points. When the live-action character of young Sauli, who wears a yarmulke, has trouble with three school bullies, they are not portrayed as odious giants, but as plausible young extortionists of the kind you can believe would work a schoolyard.

After Sauli and his two friends pass through the computer screen, they witness a version of the battle of David and Goliath enacted by cartoon animals. By the time Sauli returns to real life, he's been inspired enough to face his bullies and disperse them.

The man behind the program, Squire D. Rushnell, acknowledges that ``Kingdom'' is intended as a religious lesson.

``It's a tearing down of the wall between the so-called religious market and the secular market,'' he said by phone. Mr. Rushnell, vice-president for long-range planning and children's television for ABC Entertainment, conceived the story, and as a step in the production process wrote the book on which the program is based. His roots in children's TV are deep and distinguished: Among other programs, he was responsible for the renowned and multi-award-winning ``ABC Afterschool Specials'' and ``ABC Weekend Specials.''

``Kingdom Chums'' is a format allowing for more specials using its characters. Does Rushnell have the next program in mind?

``Yes, that's going to be the toughest one,'' he says. ``If we're successful in this first one, the next is going to be the New Testament - the whole story.''

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