TV Reviews : 'Mulligan' Has Upbeat Message for Children

Based on Virginia Lee Burton's popular children's story about the conflict between progress and tradition, "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel" (airing tonight at 7 on HBO cable) inaugurates the new "HBO Storybook Musicals" series on a pleasantly upbeat note.

Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel, Mary Anne, work happily and hard, digging canals and railroad beds and basements for skyscrapers, especially when a crowd is watching. Mary Anne is half machine, half pet dinosaur, as the original illustrations suggested: In a warm, playful moment, she catches shovels of dirt as Mike tosses them in different directions.

Their idyllic existence comes to an end when bigger, more powerful electric, diesel and gasoline shovels replace them on the job: No more steam shovels are wanted.

Mike and Mary Anne leave the city for the small town of Popperville, where they agree to dig the cellar for the new town hall in a single day or the work will be free. They get so involved trying to meet their deadline and please the people who have gathered to watch that they forget to leave an exit ramp. An ingenious plan saves the day, and all ends as happily as it began.

Produced and directed by Michael Sporn, the animation in "Mike Mulligan" is minimal but effectively used. Robert Klein, who adapted and expanded the story, makes a genial narrator.

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