The wonderful world wide web (including this very site) has looked in detail at Netflix; the hits, the misses, the hidden gems, the ones to miss and so on. This said, Netflix Originals has another area where it operates. And this is where my three-year-old son comes in.
Thanks to Nick Jnr and Channel 5’s Milkshake, we’re generally okay in our house should children’s television (AKA award-winning parenting) be required. Netflix takes it to another level. There are the well-known shows (Peppa Pig, Paw Patrol etc.), the slightly lesser-known programmes (Pocoyo being my personal favourite) and then there are Netflix’s own productions. Let’s have a look…
To start with one aimed at the real youngsters, Jim Henson production Word Party is all primary colours, baby animals that talk to the camera and a narrator asking them (and, by extension, the audience) simple questions. “What type of animal is this?” It also has some absolute lyrical gems – “clickety clock goes tickety tock” and others – as well as a congratulatory message at the end. It elevates Dora the Explorer to William the Shakespeare but, to be fair, I’m hardly its target audience. Colourful and cute.
Ask The Story Bots
Moving to slightly older children – those speaking in full sentences and now bouncing with curiosity – we reach Ask The Story Bots. This cracking show only has six episodes but each is brimming with energy and ideas to spare. Featuring five ‘Story Bots’ – admittedly little more than coloured blobs – the structure is centred around a question asked by a real child. Our heroes then embark on a journey to find the answer. The visuals are a unique mix of animation, live actors and puppetry and there are some very random songs. It’s a programme that inspires learning, science and… cameos. Glorious cameos. Jay Leno, Whoopi Goldberg and Kevin Smith all pop up in various guises to help answer the questions.
But these stars aren’t the real stars. The “office” (inside a computer) where each episode begins is returned to periodically for mini-sketches from two hyperactive bots. These two giggle at each other in stoner fashion as random stuff happens around them; it’s all very reminiscent of The Mr Men show. A third bot called Hap, effectively the boss of the Story Bots, is my personal favourite. He’s usually answering a dozen telephones and barking out answers to questions we’re not hearing. The first time that this happens the words are “aardvark”, “platypus”, “2.9 years” and “jump rope”. Later we get “naked mole rat”, “Pablo Picasso” and “steel cut oatmeal.” Bewitchingly barmy.
A sweet, simple programme, Puffin Rock episodes are narrated by Chris The IT Crowd O’Dowd and each story is less than ten minutes in length. Primarily featuring two young puffins, (Una and Baba) the episodes are a mix of story and education. The first shows the puffins catching fish with the “action” (roughly on a par with Animal Crossing games) following Una trying to teach Baba about what grown puffins do. Later episodes show a hatching seagull, a super moon and a fox helping the puffins track down a missing pygmy shrew.
The 2D animation is charming and gentle music underpins each narrative – some of the themes remind me of Lily’s Driftwood Bay and the bird’s theme from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. It’s a show aimed at littler ones in perhaps the Peppa Pig bracket but is gentler and more educational than its global alternative. O’Dowd’s voice is perfect as a narrator, and his warm tones prove very soothing even in the moments of (very mild) peril. Charming.
Veggie Tales In The House
Though most of the show is uncontroversial, this one will be divisive. Very divisive. It’s aimed at the slightly younger children but not tots; probably a similar group to those enjoying “Ask The Story Bots”. It is based in a “big ‘ol house” (so says the introduction song) and features a small village of vegetables. The storylines follow many archetypal children’s stories; talent shows, looking after pets and the like. Each episode also features at least one catchy song; there is a really rather great one in a spaghetti western fashion as two characters undertake a staring contest to settle an argument.
So why the potential divisions? This series is indeed a Netflix original but it originally derives from an American TV show simply entitled Veggie Tales – a Christian programme with episodes featuring storylines adapted from the Bible. Those of a non-Christian bent may find the Godly lessons heavy handed; each episode prominently features or ends with a Bible quote (Luke 16:10, Ecclesiastes) and the very last comment of each episode features the two central characters (Bob and Larry) turning directly to the audience and telling them: “God made you special – and he loves you very much”. It’s not subtle and it may not be all parents’ cup of tea.
This said, any show which features a Tom Celeriac character selling miracle moustache power gets a laugh from me.
Home: Adventures With Tip & Oh
One of several Netflix programmes using relatively basic animation following up from a successful film, Home: Adventures with Tip & Oh begins after the events of Home; the recent feature film starring Jim Parsons as an alien (Oh) meeting a young girl (Tip) when Oh’s species invade earth. Whilst it features the same characters it is mostly a different cast (save for “best friend Kyle”). It is very similar in spirit to its cinematic predecessor with a strong emphasis on friendship and quick-fire gags. The first episode based on Oh moving in with Tip is a typical new roommate comedy while the second features Oh learning about Santa Claus and a lovely reindeer gag.
It’s very much a case of “if you loved the film, you’ll love this”. Personally, I find Home to be a highly-underrated film that is visually inventive with strong characters and a wholesome message about family and trust. The Netflix show sticks rigidly to these values, throwing in some innocent cutaways like those in the film and exposition-heavy songs. Not that the kids will mind a jot; they’ll be too busy giggling and dancing along.
I don’t know who had the idea for this programme, but it’s lovely. Each episode features brightly coloured bugs doing the sorts of things that brightly coloured bugs do in kids shows. They learn to fly, to play, to get along, to help, but this episode has a unique selling point unparalleled in the genre that is children’s television: The Beatles.
Each episode’s plot revolves around – and features an ongoing rendition of – a separate Beatles track. The opening episode is called Help!, and it features one character getting stuck inside a glass bottle. So, he takes the natural course and starts singing a song by possibly the most famous band of all time. And it’s completely wonderful. It’s not a straight-up beat-for-beat cover version; a different tempo, key, arrangement and even order of lyrics may keep the spirit of the original but make it entirely unique. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (episode two) is my favourite, where the characters are tracking down a sleep-doctor who lives over “a bridge by a fountain” to help the youngest one sleep. The sleep doctor with “kaleidoscope eyes”. Oh yeah. Magic.
One of several productions from the DreamWorks team, Dinotrux was one of the first Netflix originals children’s programmes that I was introduced to primarily as its characters are goddamn dinosaurs. Metal dinosaurs, to be precise. A combination irresistible to my young boy and, to be fair, his father. It features a great deal of character-development over the episodes and unlike some of the younger programmes there are much larger story arcs taking place besides the self-contained ones.
The main story arc is the formation of a group of sporadic, usually antagonistic dinosaur-machine hybrids into a cohesive, cooperative team. It begins with a Tyrannosaurus robot joining forces with a reptile gadget before bringing in a Craneosaur, Dozeratops and Ankylosaur. Between them they build a home and fight off a more vicious Tyrannosaurs as well as raptors. Cooperation and team work is the name of this game and the central theme for kids to take in. Well, that and how cool dinosaur robots are. The production values are excellent and I would thoroughly recommend Dinotrux to slightly older children. There’s no question that there are scary moments and violence is a recurring issue. So, naturally, my three-year-old loves it.
Tarzan And Jane
One of Netflix’s newer offerings, Tarzan And Jane looks to be one of the higher budget programmes with graphics not too far off the first Ice Age film. It’s mostly a familiar set up for a Tarzan story; boy raised in jungle by animals stuck between the animal world and the human one. However, there is an almost X-Men/superhero variant thrown in when, at the beginning of episode one, baby Tarzan is given a combination of animal DNA (for… reasons) that lead to him being somewhat super-powered. He can out-run cheetahs. He’s stronger than a lion. He’s… well, more than the average Tarzan.
The animation and effects are all excellent and the episodes vary from a light-hearted Tarzan racing home from school over roof tops (oh, yeah, he goes to a school in England eventually) to others where Tarzan battles gun-wielding poachers. Speaking purely anecdotally, it is one of the few shows my boy has not stuck with. The same can’t be said for…
And now we’re getting to the big names. Guillermo Del Toro is behind the (virtual) camera this time with a show featuring Kelsey Grammer as a four armed, many-eyed troll and Hellboy himself (Ron Perlman) as the villainous Bular. The story is a classic ‘Chosen One’ hero fantasy where the lead character – Jim, played by the sorely missed Anton Yelchin – is chosen by a magic amulet to be the new Trollhunter. He is the first human to have held this role and is treated with a great deal of dislike by the ‘good’ trolls he is supposed to protect. He has his own Samwise Gamgee called Toby for additional comic relief but he also anchors our hero in both the troll and human worlds.
This programme really is the line where TV and film productions blur. It’s beautiful enough to happily sit beside How To Train Your Dragon, has a voice cast to rival most Pixar films and a world of its own that, whilst not quite at Hogwarts-levels, feels utterly unique. Jim is a very relatable hero for children what with his school troubles, crush on another pupil and dizzying home life. Apart from those who might disparagingly write it off as simply a children’s TV show I can’t think of an age group that wouldn’t be entertained by Trollhunters. And isn’t that what it’s all about?
A Brit School for puppets taught by Hollywood legend Julie “Jules” Andrews herself? I’d love to have been at that pitch meeting. A love letter to theatre, this series teaches children about the various aspects of putting on a show. Each episode focuses on particular areas of the production process – writing, original songs, acting and more. It’s a nice idea but the puppet characters are a little bit bland compared to their more famous counterparts; none of these is going to trouble Kermit or Big Bird for the top puppet prize.
This said, the puppets are not the main draw of the show. Julie Andrews both stars in and helped create Julie’s Greenroom and it’s clearly a passion project for her. She’s in most of the scenes and gamely plays along with the puppets and occasional human cast members. It’s a shame that the material isn’t as engaging. However, like Ask The Story Bots, each episode features a guest star. And they’ve got a couple of whoppers. As well as the cast of Stomp, singer Sara Bareilles, Chris Colfer (Glee) and screen legend Carol Burnett there’s Hollywood giant Alec Baldwin and Let It Go megastar Idina Menzel. Like Julie Andrews each of these stars lifts the show substantially but you can’t help but feel that there is a soaring show hidden inside this slight flat one. It’s not bad by any means, it just could have been more.
And finally it’s time to look at some insanity aimed not at young children but grown-ups with the brains of young children (though it is available through a Kids Netflix account so it counts!). Buddy Thunderstruck is epically, wonderfully, hilariously stupid. These ten minute bursts of crazy stop motion are from the Robot Chicken studio but – to steal the tagline literally included in the trailer – are “from the creators of Care Bears – yes, really”. The style of the former is overwhelming and your love or hate of this show will match your attitude to Robot Chicken.
Buddy Thunderstruck is centred around the titular egotistical truck racer/delivery man/town celebrity. Each episode tends to have a race in it (over in seconds) with another plot alongside it. The first episode involves an imposter pretending to be Buddy to ruin his reputation. The second features a pizza-delivering beaver company. In the third Buddy takes over as town sheriff. The rival racer’s catchphrase upon defeat is “Fart Nugget”. There’s little chats about going to the aquarium to stack penguins, worms vs beetles and dynamite fishing. It’s very similar to A Town Called Panic really – and that’s no complaint.