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I Wanna Be Sedated

Barney's Great Adventure drops us in a lobotomized, manic kid hell

What's six feet tall, giggles incessantly and is known as both "the Elvis of the preschool set" and "The Purple Antichrist?"

Whether you're grateful for the free baby-sitting he provides or dying to slice him into tiny purple ribbons, you can't deny the overwhelming power Barney the Dinosaur has wielded over the tots of our nation since his PBS series Barney and Friends debuted in 1992. According to the New York Times, over $200 million in Barney paraphernalia was sold in 1993, the high point of the Purple One's popularity.

A multifaceted icon, Barney is also a recording star: He's sold 45 million home videos, performed live in shopping centers across the nation and sold over 15 million books. (Mickey and company must be very jealous.)

Unfortunately for Polygram, the distributor of the new Barney's Great Adventure, Barney-mania has died down somewhat in the last few years. It seems strange to release a film based on a character who hit his peak half a decade ago, but so it is.

Parents, obviously, will be wondering how the film stacks up to the Barney and Friends television program. Thankfully, screenwriter (and Barney television writer) Stephen White found a temporary antidote for the lobotomy he must've been given when he started working on the TV show. At least, that's the only plausible explanation for the fact that the film -- unlike the rambling, almost dada TV show -- has a plot. We should add that it took Barney creator Sheryl Leach and producer Dennis DeShazer to help White with the story -- the film's press notes credit all three. (In addition to his Barney-related scriptwriting credits, White is responsible for numerous Barney books as well as the Purple One's radio series. One needn't speculate to which level of hell this man will be sent upon his death.)

The story revolves around Cody (Trevor Morgan), his sister Abby (Diana Rice) and her chum Marcella (Kyla Pratt), who are being shuttled up to their grandparents' farm for a week of country air. While the two girls must be around ten years of age, they are completely enraptured by the gospel of Barney, tormenting the sarcastic and skeptical Cody until he steals the girls' beloved plush friend. As with Barney and Friends, it is the children's imagination that brings the big lug to life. Cody tells Barney he wants an adventure no one has ever had, while continuing to sport a very naughty attitude about the dinosaur. His wish comes true when a giant egg from the heavens lands in the barn. Yes, an egg.

The troupe brings the discovery to local ornithologist Ms. Goldfinch, and the wacky, Technicolor high jinks ensue.

The child actors have the correct balance of Ritalin-happy hyperactivity and Broadway mugging -- which is to say, enough to completely nauseate any parent in the audience who didn't start Junior with acting lessons at age two.

Unfortunately, the film suffers from most of the features that have made Barney and Friends such a popular target for criticism. Barney-led song-and-dance routines materialize out of thin air, all manic choreography and wincingly cheesy can-do couplets, like "A lemon got so dismayed / Until he made lemonade / That's how dreams are made."

When Barney is on the scene, after all, children don't have problems, and on the rare occasion when things are less than perfect, everyone starts singing and dancing and the trouble quickly evaporates into thin air. Although Barney's producers call it "escapism," the film -- like the TV series -- seems to teach young children that conformity is best, and that having problems is wrong. One should ignore unhappiness or pain until it goes away.

There's another disturbing tendency to the film: From the very beginning, the foul-tempered and skeptical Cody seems to attract an abnormally large amount of bad luck upon himself. He steps on a cow patty in his new sneakers, falls off the porch and is chased by the farm's pigs. Meanwhile, the two girls frolic in a perpetual shower of sunshine and butterflies.

On one level, the movie is a success. Buckets of color enhance the film, and Barney's TV cohorts Baby Bop and BJ pop up occasionally. Big-top scenes with members of Cirque du Soleil, a hot-air-balloon race and a town parade straight out of Toyland make the action enjoyable. And the whimsical props of production designer Vincent Jefferds really command attention. The wonderland of Ms. Goldfinch's birdhouse is worth the price of admission. Well, almost.

There is no educational value here whatsoever -- Barney is pure cotton candy. Parents seem to tolerate Barney because of the hypnotic effect he has on tykes. He can immobilize them for 30 minutes every day, and longer if one of his equally empty videos is around. To the movie's credit, the escapist euphoria he promotes is actually better suited to film than television. Though 75 minutes in length -- an eternity in kid time -- Barney's Great Adventure has enough bells and whistles and annoying Barney songs to keep fans of the purple Pied Piper in their seats for the duration of the film. As long, that is, as they're not given candy.

Barney's Great Adventure.
Rated G.
Directed by Steve Gomer. With Barney the Dinosaur, Trevor Morgan, Diana Rice and Kyla Pratt.

 
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