The Mouse That Played

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After a slow entrance into the CD-ROM market, Disney is filling the kids' software shelves with titles that come with a ready-made advantage. While other distributors labor to establish the characters "Putt Putt" and "Buzzy" in the minds of children and their parents, Disney is tapping its trove of established, high-profile animated efforts.

The last six months have seen a series of releases that trade on familiar titles. 'Aladdin," "Lion King" and "Pocahontas" CD-ROMs are already out, and "Toy Story" software is on its way.

For many of these titles, Disney has developed two product lines: animated "storybooks" that retell condensed versions of the movie with stop-and-click options along the way; and more hands-on "activity centers," which presuppose a child's basic knowledge of stories and characters and let kids play games with the characters.

To sample which works better, we took the two "Lion King" CD-ROMs and put them in front of a passel of 5- and 6-year-old kids who had all seen the movie. The goal: to see if the built-in cachet of familiar characters matters to children once they're in front of a computer screen. The answer: yes, but lovable characters can't overcome a weak program.

Things got off to a great start with the "Activity Center." While this game is skewed to an older audience, our 5- and 6-year-old product testers were excited about the opportunity to interact with their familiar friends--and they found that they could master the entry levels of most of the games.

The "Activity Center" is divided into four "Pride Lands." A Magic Pool includes six movie clips, while the Jungle, Rafiki's Tree and the Shadowlands each sport three games.

Starting in the Jungle, Juliana, 6 1/2, found that she could master the basic level of Timon and Pumbaa's spelling game. Timon's Bug Matching Game was more challenging, and the kids' concentration levels were tested as they tried to find exact pairs among pictures with slight differences.

Moving on to Rafiki's Tree, 5 1/2-year-old computer sophisticate Joshua, with a drawer full of other CD-ROMs, eagerly clicked through the menu to the picture puzzle game. Moving the pieces around, he began to create a savanna scene--polishing his mouse skills and learning how irregular shapes fit together. Even Spencer, the 5 1/2-year-old with the least amount of computer skills, was smitten: "I love this game!"

Older onlookers wrested the mouse away to tap into Pumbaa's Hidden Animal Friends (modeled on the Highlights magazine page of baby boomers' yore). Ten animals are hidden in a jungle scene at the highest degree of difficulty, and each discovery was recorded with a paw or hoof print appearing on a bar at top of the screen.

After a break, the panel tried the "Animated Storybook." Initially, there was rapt attention as familiar images popped up. And Timon, the meerkat who acts as tour guide, explained in kid-friendly terms how to navigate through the program.

But initial excitement began to flag as the familiar story of Simba unfolded on the screen. The chance to click on specific words and have them defined by Rafiki, the cultured baboon, provided some diversion. But the general lack of anything to do as the story unfolded caused a case of fidgets.

Parental prods of "isn't this fun?" elicited a disinterested response. After about five minutes, none of the kids were fighting for control of the mouse, and the most repeated request was "Can we go play with the dog?"

But the "animated storybook" is parent-friendly as the comparative lack of much to do makes it a good baby sitter for more passive computer kids. The familiar voices of James Earl Jones, Nathan Lane and Robert Guillaume might lessen the sting to adult ears that repeated hearings generate.

"Disney's Activity Center: The Lion King". Age: 5 & up. $34.95. (800) 228-0988

"Disney's Animated Storybook: The Lion King" Age: 3 to 9. $32.95 (800) 228-0988

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Michelle Stern can be reached at Sherry.Stern@latimes.com.

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