Special Report

Cool, cute and Canadian

Andrew Clark September 27 1999
Special Report

Cool, cute and Canadian

Andrew Clark September 27 1999

Cool, cute and Canadian

The best new kids’ shows are all made in Canada

Andrew Clark

Andrea Beck first invented Elliot Moose 10 years ago when she entertained her kids with stories of his adventures. Even after they became teenagers, Elliot still held a place in Becks imagination. She decided to write an Elliot Moose childrens book and eventually produced Elliot’s Emergency, in which Elliot’s friends help him mend his injured leg. Beck sent her tale to Kids Can Press, which immediately snatched it up. Just four months later, not only did the Toronto-based publisher turn Elliot into the star of his own book series, but Nelvana Ltd., the Toronto-based animators behind such popular hits as Pippi Longstocking and Babar, created a cartoon series. Today, Elliot Moose plays on public television across North America. “I went from submitting an idea,” says the 42-yearold Beck, “to reading about myself in trade papers.”

Beck’s story is increasingly common. Canadian children’s television, especially shows based on Canadian kids’ books, is booming. In fact, Canadian animators and producers are not just conquering domestic airwaves, they are beginning to dominate the $7-billion global kids’ TV market. Nelvana, which has offices in Europe and the United States, has the two top shows for kids aged 2 to 5—Little Bear and Franklin, which follow the exploits of a young turtle and his friends. Franklin began life as a series of books written by Canadian author Paulette Bourgeois and illustrated by Brenda Clark. It airs on both the CBC and Family Channel, and is broadcast in 150 countries. “Thirty years ago, it was impossible for Canadian animators to get distribution in the United States,” says Nelvana coCEO Michael Hirsh. “It wasn’t until 10 years ago that there was a breakthrough.”

That, coupled with a steady stream of

skilled animators graduating from Oakville, Ont.-based Sheridan College, has led to a torrent of Canadian production. Teletoon, Canada’s animation specialty channel, has 24 series in production. YTV, whose prime-time schedule is almost exclusively Canadian, has 11 new Canadian series debuting, all of which are also playing in the United States. Alliance Atlantis recendy launched a new children’s division, Alliance Atlantis Kids. The company will provide production, pre-sales and licensing for a spate of new shows, including Hoze ILoundz, an old-fashioned-style action cartoon, and The World of Peter Cottontail, a 13-episode series based on the books of American author Thornton W. Burgess.

Foreign broadcasters choose Canadian children’s programming because it is generally less violent than American programming and places a greater emphasis on educational value. Montreal-based Cinar, for instance, has a no-violence policy on all its programming. Canadian kids’ television also tends to reflect a child’s world with tender accuracy. “ Franklin is very reality-based, which is very popular with kids,” says Andrew Witkin, vicepresident of North American licensing for Nelvana. “He experiences many of the dilemmas that kids go through. They relate to him and his experiences.” Those experiences have travelled well. To date, 20 million Franklin books have been sold worldwide, and in the spring a Franklin movie is set to hit theatres. “I had no expectations other than to write one children’s book,” says Bourgeois. “I once received a letter from a mother whose child had gotten lost and used what he remembered from a Franklin story to help find his way back. I can’t believe how far it’s come.”

Kids programming is no longer restricted to Saturday mornings. CBC Playground presents

three hours of preschool programming a day. Its Amigo &Me series of five-minute shorts stars a furry, life-sized puppet. Created by Radical Sheep Productions Inc., the Torontobased company that also produces the kids’ show The Big Comfy Couch, Amigo & Me revolves around exploration of basic physical concepts, such as how rain is made. MumbleBumble follows the adventures of a blue hippopotamus and his friends Chic’o, a curious chicken, and Greens, an energetic frog. The show, produced by Cinar, combines fanciful settings—MumbleBumble lives in a windmill at the foot of a deep blue lake—with everyday childhood trappings. The hippo and his gang create a starry sky using three flashlights, and use a cardboard box to make their own TV shows.

YTV is introducing I Was a Sixth Grade Alien, a terrific liveaction series for older kids. Based on the collection of novels by award-winning children’s author Bruce Coville, the series centres around the fish-out-of-water antics of a purple 12year-old alien named Pleskit. With its playful B-movie esthetic, I Was a Sixth Grade Alien is “cool” enough to intrigue jaded 12-year-olds and fanciful enough to hook the younger set. Mainframe Entertainment Inc., the Vancouver-based company behind such computer-generated hits as Reboot and Beasties brings kids Weird-Ohs, a show that takes place “somewhere off Route 66” in a town called Weirdsville. In this peculiar burg, speed is king, and characters Digger, Eddie and Portia spend their days drag-racing and dating. It is Dukes of Hazzard meets Bugs Bunny.

Watership Down, the classic children’s novel by Richard Adams, was last given an animated treatment 21 years ago. Toronto production house Decode Entertainment Inc. has teamed up with British animators Alltime Entertainment Ltd. to create a 26-episode series. Watership Down tells the story of a warren of rabbits who leave their endangered home to start a new colony. They struggle to survive a host of predators and an ominous threat from a nearby den run by the ruthless rabbit General Woundwort. The animation is subtle, yet will easily intrigue young viewers. The cast is out-

standing, including British actors John Hurt, Stephen Fry and Rik Mayall, whom Canadian audiences may know from his work as Lord Flashheart on the BBC series Blackadder.

Global is introducing a live-action Canadian series—Popular Mechanics for Kids. Yes, that’s right. Cunning TV producers have taken one of the most square “my-dad-reads-that” publications and given it the teen treatment. The show, produced by SDA Productions Inc. of Montreal, has worldwide distribution. Popular Mechanics for Kids hosts Elisha Cuthbert, Tyler Kyte, Vanessa Lengies and Charles Powell explore an eclectic, fast-paced mix of stories, from underwater theme parks to bodyguard training to a tree-house school.

Teletoon, which draws 4 million viewers a week, has two terrific Canadian kids’ shows among its new offerings. Decodes Angela Anaconda is the most innovative kids’ series of the season. Stories are anchored in reality. In the first episode, for example, the precocious Angela wants her class to visit a monster-truck rally. Her archrival, Nanette, votes for the ballet. From this mundane plot springs such bizarre events as a version of Swan Lake that ends in a muddy pit filled with monster trucks, and the invention (by Angelas father) of a hair dryer that “sucks and blows.”

Mega Babies looks like another winner for Teletoon. The series’ concept proves that not every successful cartoon needs educational merit: three brawny babies and their nanny defend the world from evil space invaders. Declares the series promo reel: “They’re tiny. They’re teething and they’re ready to kick some alien butt.” Kids (and quite a few adults) who tune in to such absurd treats as Space Goof and Ren &Stimpy will flock to Mega Babies mixture of kitsch and cool.

The kids’ TV season is so rich that grown-ups, with or without children, may find themselves tuning in. Yet one more reason for those with thinning hair and expanding midriffs to pine away for lost youth. Eïïl