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TV Picks: Musical 'Elf,' 'MasterChef Junior,' ecology for kids

An animated musical remake of "Elf" reminds you this week that it's almost Christmas.

"Elf: Buddy's Musical Christmas" (NBC, Tuesday). Nothing says Christmas like stop-motion animation, yet the canon is surprisingly small, even if you add in all those old Norelco ads. So this puppetoon turn on the Will Ferrell contemporary holiday classic is both apt and welcome — all the more so for being so well done. I can't think of another example of a live-action film comedy being translated, by way of a Broadway musical, into an animated TV special (this is a remake, not a sequel), but after the cognitive dissonance (quickly) fades, its own charming life and look take over — a look that falls somewhere between Rankin-Bass dollhouse and the retro-modern City of Townsville, with the emphasis on the latter. (The score too, with songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, has a midcentury swing.) Ed Asner repeats his film role as Santa Claus, but otherwise it's a new cast, with Jim Parsons in for Ferrell as Buddy, the human raised by elves who sets out from the North Pole, all enthusiasm and no filters, to find his father in the New York. (You will recall — you've seen "Elf," haven't you? — that the North Pole exteriors in the original film were an homage to Rankin-Bass stop motion; and I ought to mention that their "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," 50 this year, will screen Saturday on CBS.) Kate Micucci takes over for Zooey Deschanel as Jobie, who dresses as an elf only for seasonal work, with Mark Hamill in James Caan's place as Buddy's naughty-listed father. Fred Armisen, Steve Higgins, Rachael McFarlane, Gilbert Gottfried, Jay Leno and Matt Lauer also speak. Co-directors Mark Caballero and Seamus Walsh also made the 2012 stop-motion holiday special "It's a SpongeBob Christmas"; it's the nice list for them.

"Saving My Tomorrow" (HBO, Monday). Two-part bulletin on the fate of the Earth flips it to the kids, because, as Zoe, 12, says, "The adults clearly aren't doing enough to stop this, so we have to take it into our own hands." Directed by Amy Schatz ("Don't Divorce Me! Kids' Rules for Parents on Divorce," "An Apology to Elephants"), each half-hour segment features brief documentary visits with environmentally active young folk; celebrity-narrated informational segments; and songs, both by famous grown-ups including Willie Nelson (on greenhouse gasses) and Stephen Merritt (on bugs) and by the kids themselves, presented music video style. Lennon and Maisy (who play the Conrad Sisters on "Nashville") cover Joni Mitchell's 44-year-old "Big Yellow Taxi," which has not yet managed to save paradise from parking lots. There are looks at pine beetles, sea turtles, Hurricane Sandy. The best segments, which could make a series of their own, take place at New York's American Museum of Natural History, a co-presenter of this special; there, kids meet real-life life scientists, who show them the bird and fish collections, draw the necessary connections between the climate and what lives in it and commend to them the study of biology. Tina Fey speaks of the Monarch butterfly and the disappearing milkweed on which it feeds; Jeffrey Wright tells of Thoreau and how spring comes earlier now to Walden Pond; and Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose calming voice the good robots of the future all will have, relates the plight of the polar bear, echoed in the song "Save My Polar Bear, Please," by a middle-school-ish rock band. It can look a little quixotic to an adult TV critic; it's more about raising troops than proposing remedies. (Certainly it is not about how hard it is to implement them.) But it's the issue of the age, the interconnectedness of all things, and as the target generation is already being raised to live inside the Matrix — is, in fact, rushing to do so — one that can't be too much discussed. "We do more damage to the Earth than really we think we're doing," says Peri, 9, hitting a nail on the head.

"MasterChef Junior" (Fox, Tuesday). This week brings the final episode — the finals episode — of the second season of this junior cooking competition, the most reliably emotional hour of my watching week. (It wrecks me.) The contest has come down now to Samuel, 12, the odds-on favorite — in his own mind too, seemingly — and bow-tied goofball Logan, 11, something of a slow-and-steady dark horse, who aced the semi-finals with an oil-poached salmon. I was hoping to see 8-year-old Abby get through; she cooked with the sophistication of an adult but the vision of a kid and was also just delightful company: quirky and cool-headed, confident without ego and, until the moment of her elimination, impossible to rattle. (She rebounded quickly.) For that matter, I was also rooting for Adaiah, the other semi-finalist; indeed, the only thing I don't like about this show is that someone goes home every week. At the same time, there's something moving in the judging itself — by Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot — so serious yet so sweet. (If the kids weren't held to a high standard, their approval wouldn't matter, and the series itself would have no point.) You don't often, on television, get to see this kind of tenderness between adults and children who are not their own; it is considered suspicious nowadays. (The kids are supportive of one another as well, something that can not often be said of their counterparts in the adult "MasterChef.") I will miss it for all the months until its return. Season 3 is casting now. [Updated, Nov. 16, 6:11 p.m. Season 4 is in fact casting now; Season 3 begins airing in January!]

Robert Lloyd is on Twitter right this minute @LATimesTVLloyd.

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