To see a world in a tree puppet

Times Staff Writer

The weekday-morning PBS series "It's a Big, Big World," which premiered Monday on KCET, is a life-sciences show for preschoolers, which is to say it will not go deeply into organic chemistry or the origin of species, and there will not be a test at the end.

Made in Shadowmation, which puts team-operated puppets into virtual computer environments, it takes place in a rain forest in a big tree called the World Tree, which is as much of the big, big world as we are going to see. But it is a very big tree, with a good long view from the top. (William Blake only needed a grain of sand to see the world, and we are way ahead of him here.) The effects are impressively three-dimensional and fluid, although the shifting angles and pans -- as if to show off what Shadowmation can do -- at times make the image pitch and yaw like a boat on choppy seas.

The series is a kind of tropical variation on creator Mitchell Kriegman's earlier "Bear in the Big Blue House" (he also created Nickelodeon's seminal sitcom "Clarissa Explains It All") with a large but gentle furry thing at the center of a lot of smaller creatures. Kriegman has taken the Mister Rogers paradigm, which holds that the way to address very young children is slowly and quietly, with no sudden movements, to its logical conclusion and has made his host a giant tree sloth named Snook.

Though Snook's species, and those of some of the rest of the cast, argues for a South or Central American locale, he has the demeanor of a West Coast surfer. "Woooah," he says, and "no way!" and "innnnterresting" and "lookin' good!" Self-described as "awkward, clumsy, slow" and in need of sleep almost to the point of narcolepsy, he will seem familiar to anyone who has ever known a teenager.

The subject here is mostly animals -- where they live, how they live, what they need to live, how they get around, how they grow. The inaugural episode was about a tadpole that became a tree frog, and the word for the day, repeated so you'll remember it, was "met-a-mor-pho-sis."

"Every creature is perfect in their own way," says Oko, a wise old monkey who is a master of tai chi. "But sometimes they change." Every creature being perfect in its own way is indeed the overarching message being posted here.

"Hey," says Snook, addressing his small fry viewers through the camera, "did you know you are an animal too? Ha-hah! Welcome, fellow animal. We are all animals." This is, of course, not news to children; it's just the adults who need to be reminded of it.

Among the other nonhuman animals inhabiting this very large tree are a pair of bickering sibling marmosets, a tree frog, a bird, an anteater with an unnatural affection for ants and a librarian turtle. There is also a fish living in a pool at the foot of the tree.

Naturally, they all coexist in herbivorous comity or do their dining off-screen -- this is not the sort of nature in which things are run down and ripped apart or swallowed alive and whole.

There are songs too, the sort of world beat pop one hears in Disney films, cheery sing-alongs made from a cocktail of African, Caribbean and Polynesian ingredients. I think children may like them, but they make me reach for my Metallica.

According to the educational philosophy page of the series' website, it will "model good scientific inquiry" and "will also introduce kids to geography, providing them with a basic understanding that the world is quite big while giving them a sense that they are an important part of a larger community." And well it might, or it might not.

If PBS is out to create new generations of biologists and geographers or simply citizens sympathetic to scientific inquiry and to the idea that the Earth is not the exclusive property of Homo sapiens, I am wholly behind them; learning to respect other species might even help a person to treat other people well. Possibly. Maybe. I'm not sure that this (or any) television show can accomplish it, but I applaud the attempt. Meanwhile, "It's a Big, Big World" is a low-stress half-hour, free of commercials and cacophony, and it is certainly nice to look at.


'It's a Big, Big World'

Where: KCET

When: 8:30 to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday

Creator: Mitchell Kriegman. Produced at Wainscott Studios, a state-of-the-art animation and production facility in Wainscott, N.Y.

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