Barney the Dinosaur's broad purple hide has sustained quite a few scars since Barney and Friends debuted on PBS in spring 1992. Bob Dole denounced him on the floor of the Senate as part of a public television scam. Rogue computer programmers made him the target of automatic weapons fire in computer games and screensavers. Grade-schoolers across the country even excoriated him in song. ("I hate you/You hate me/Let's tie Barney to a tree" is among the only printable schoolyard ditties, even for this newspaper.)
As though it were not bad enough that Dallas is remembered as the city that killed JFK, we are now marked with another stigma: From our urban morass the giggly, bouncy, super-tactile Barney rose and has gone on to consume a weekly national audience of 11 million viewers ages 2 to 5. He also feeds voraciously at the children's direct-to-video market, having sold a whopping 45 million tapes since his arrival.
You can argue, in a world where irony has collapsed into cynicism, that Barney, however cloyingly, wraps preschoolers in a velvety cocoon of affirmation and good will that for at least an hour a day blocks out all the crap that adults fling at each other over the airwaves. Barney may sound (and even slightly look like) faded professional hugger Leo Buscaglia, but since TV is and will for the foreseeable future be a primary influence on kids, why not bludgeon the message into their tender little skulls that imagination is one of the greatest assets they possess?
No argument there. The problem with Barney the TV show and now Barney's Great Adventure: The Movie is that, for all their well-meaning invocations of loving yourself, accepting difference, and using imagination to strengthen your mind, they are almost insultingly bereft of anything that approaches inspiration, craft, or intelligence. They talk about stimulating kids, but they're far more interested in sedating them with jingle-driven simulations of stimulation. Like filthy-rich inspirational speakers such as Tony Robbins, Barney provides a soothing substitute for the kind of take-risks, get-out-there-and-mess-things-up ambition he espouses. As long as kids are anesthetized by Barney's propagandistic repetition of what a unique and powerful tool their mind is, they never have to open the toolbox and try it out.
Most shocking of all, the makers of Barney never provide that opportunity. A friend who has allowed her two kindergarten-age children to watch the show, and even bought a couple of videotapes for them, wondered why they couldn't squeeze a few more dollars out of this stingy 'saur and up the production values of the show. After six mega-successful years, it still looks like a cable-access show that purchased its sets from Pee-Wee Herman's yard sale. Considering that public-domain ditties like "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and "Old McDonald" are regularly resurrected for the sing-a-longs (even Barney's theme song is a rewrite of "This Old Man"), and that most of the dinosaur's "adventures" aren't especially adventurous, you wonder if Barney's writers aren't sorely underpaid.
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You can bet far more money will go into toy commercials and promotional tie-ins than was pumped into Barney's Great Adventure: The Movie, which is set almost entirely on a farm. Barney's three human pals Cody (Trevor Morgan), Marcella (Kyla Pratt), and Abby (Diana Rice) do take time out to visit a circus that mysteriously lacks rides. They also stop at a French restaurant (Barney takes the stage and scats about what if gum drops and lemon drops were rain drops) on their hunt for a giant colored egg that fell like a meteor out of the sky (don't ask; I couldn't explain it anyway). But all the sets look as though they were constructed out of plywood in the same grassy field outside of Montreal, Canada, where the movie was shot.
You want a classic with precocious kids, songs, magic, and a wicked humor that keeps adults in stitches too? Two stellar recent examples are Henry Selick's animated James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas, both inventive, original, and perfectly suitable for not-too-easily-spooked 4- and 5-year-olds. Better yet, buy a copy of the 1971 classic Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In Barney's Great Adventure, our hero must only contend with Cody, a mildly grumpy grade-school infidel. Imagine Barney in Willie Wonka trying to corral the pinafored Veruca Salt while she blasted in that cockney megaphone voice: "I want the world, I want the whole world!"
Little Ms. Salt's materialistic chutzpah in Willie Wonka was charming to behold, because like most Roald Dahl creations, she's got brains, attitude, and style to go with her greed. (But even they don't save her from learning a hard lesson about selfishness.) Barney, on the other hand, sports the bland, naked avarice of a pre-school cult leader: He doesn't need style when he's got so many adult financiers desperate to believe. The more money parents send his way, the louder he'll proclaim that all's right with them, their kids, and the universe.
Barney's Great Adventure: The Movie.
Directed by Steve Gomer. Written by Stephen White, Sheryl Leach, Dennis DeShazer. Starring Barney, Trevor Morgan, Dana Rice, Kyla Pratt. Opens Friday.