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Animated Adventures

In my last column, I railed against the blight that is “Higglytown Heroes.” Today I come not to bury another television show, but to praise it: “The Backyardigans” rules.

Created by Janice Burgess for Nick Jr. in 2004, the show is about a group of suburban friends with adjoining backyards. Pablo (a penguin), Tyrone (a moose), Austin (a kangaroo), Tasha (a hippo) and Uniqua (a, uh, pink polka-dotted unique thing) play imaginative games, pretending to be knights, explorers, surfers, scientists, spies, detectives. As they get absorbed in each adventure, their houses fade away, the grass and trees disappear, and the backyards morph into ancient Egypt, a volcano in Hawaii, the Wild West, a robot factory… the show is really about the transformative power of imagination. How can any story-loving parent object to that? At the end of each episode, the fantasy winds down as the characters get hungry. (Just like actual children!) The characters then repair to one of their homes for snacktime. Devoted fan Web sites keep lists of said snacks and their locations: orange slices at Pablo’s; pretzels at Uniqua’s; granola bars at Tyrone’s. (Yes, people are strange and obsessive. Thank heaven for the Internet.)

What makes the show truly special is the music. Each episode is a full-length musical, with music direction by Evan Lurie of The Lounge Lizards (a fabulous longtime NYC punk-jazz band featuring Evan and his brother John Lurie, who later became the composer and star of several Jim Jarmusch movies). Lurie has worked with everyone from Arto Lindsay to Roy Nathanson and Marc Ribot. The Lounge Lizards themselves touched on many different musical genres, and “The Backyardigans” carries on that tradition, kid-style. Every episode is written in a different musical genre; among those we’ve heard so far are klezmer, bossa nova, salsa, polka, zydeco, calypso, Irish jig, Gilbert & Sullivan, Bollywood musical, Cab Calloway-style ’20s jazz, highlife (West African jazz with guitar and synthesizers), jug band, Funkadelic-style psychedelic soul, and tarantella (Italian folk music). I just wish the producers would throw mama a bone and list the musical genre at the beginning of each episode. Do not make someone who is sleepy look on the Interwebs. Early morning pre-caffeinated Googling is not pretty. Work with me, Janice.

The lyrics are often as witty as the musical references. (Anne D. Bernstein, an acquaintance who has written for the late Spy magazine and for MTV’s cult series “Daria,” has also written lyrics for the show.) I applaud whoever decided to rhyme “racing” with “sausage casing,” “doily-lacing,” “puppy-chasing” and “nervous pacing.”

The way the characters dance, too, is intriguing. The show’s choreographer, Beth Bogush, is the former director of the children’s program at New York’s Alvin Ailey School. She manages to come up with movement befitting every genre of music. She creates dances for actual humans, one for each character, who are then filmed as they dance and copied by the eagle-eyed animators. Each character moves in a way that defines his or her personality. Bossy, girly Tasha waggles her fingers daintily and swings her hips; anxious Pablo is stiff and jerky; Tyrone’s got hip-hop style; Uniqua is bouncy and jazzy.

Incidentally, I think it’s no coincidence that the characters’ names sound “ethnic.” The show’s blissful globe-hopping and genre-hopping, and the fact that some of the voice actors are clearly kids of color, convey joy in difference and diversity. “The Backyardigans” doesn’t feel politically correct or token-y, like so many other kids’ shows.

One could easily come up with a personality test: Which Backyardigan are you? Josie identifies with Tasha (bossy: check; likes pink: check; wants to be a tough mermaid: check) and when frustrated, frequently uses Tasha’s pet expression, “Oh, for goodness sakes!” (Better she should sound like peevish Tasha than peevish me.) Max loves Pablo; they’re both tiny obsessives.

As for the show’s plots, they range from innocuous to inspired. My favorite adventure, “Samurai Pie,” places the characters in an imagined ancient Japanese forest, where Austin is apprenticing, oh-little-grasshopper-style, to master pie-maker Tyrone. The two strive to create the Great Pie for Empress Tasha. They then must protect the Great Pie from marauding ninjas Uniqua and Pablo. Basically, it is insane. The episode is rife with Zen koans like “only after you have mastered the art of pie can you wear… the puffy hat” and visual references to umpteen martial arts movies. What could be simpler or more elemental, narratively-speaking, than the refrain, “haiiiii-ya, haiiiiya, we are samurais who make pie”? Oh, and inexplicably, the musical genre is “Spaghetti Western.” Someone is clearly having a lot of fun making this stuff up.

Finally, in a classic example of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” I love “The Backyardigans” because Neal Pollack hates them. Pollack, author of the self-aggrandizing hipster-parenting nuevo classic “Alternadad” (Pantheon, 2007), recently wrote an essay for Jewcy.com about his Backyardipugnance. “The songs usually end up sounding like rejects from the original score to ‘Wicked,’” he writes, apparently after watching just one episode (“Mission to Mars,” which I do admit is not one of the show’s best efforts). “Quality matters,” he continues, sounding oddly like William F. Buckley, “and for the most part, it’s not any more expensive. In the most rudimentary way, I want to teach [Elijah, his son] to think critically, or at least discerningly. Preferring one TV show to another may not be developing a point of view, but it’s a start of sorts.” That must explain why he insists his son watch “Justice League.” This is a crappily animated, violent, conventional superhero cartoon — basically, what a dad with arrested development would want to watch. Pollack ignores his wife’s objection that their 4-year-old is too young for the show, until Elijah wakes up screaming, dreaming that he’s being attacked by moles. Good times, Neal. (And newsflash: Self-deprecation and self-awareness do not make self-justifying narcissism okay. Dude, you’re still all about self! Think of your little plus-one, Mr. Cool Popcult Guy!)

Oh, and somehow, I think if Pollack had known that a genuine Cool Popcult Guy was behind the music of this show he claims to abhor, he’d be singing a different tune. Haters, let’s all hate what’s worth hating! Like “Justice League”! Or, uh, “Higglytown Heroes.” Which I insist is terrible even though my children love it. Oh, crap, I just turned into Neal Pollack. What genre of music goes with bitter self-revelation?

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.

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