This week, PBS Digital Studios published a new video in their Remixed series, Reading Rainbow Remixed.
I spend a good part of my days thinking about retellings of narratives, and revisitings of old characters, and nostalgia. I, like many people, like familiar settings and story lines. And yet, I just can't get behind this particular visit with old friends.
Retellings or revisitings1 need to do a couple of things. They need to stay true to the spirit of the original, while at the same time they need to bring something new to the viewing experience.
Nostalgia for our childhood stories and characters is a real thing. One only has to look at enormous success of the new Muppets movie, for example, or at the rise of posts, on sites like Dear Blank, Please Blank, extolling the joys of watching Disney movies as a young adult/adult, or at the fact that every studio seems to be remaking the fairy tales and superhero stories of our youth, to see that we crave these tales that we first experienced as small children.
Those childhood tales are also sacred. Any variation that runs too far from the spirit of these narratives threatens our memories, and in some ways, even our identities. And, yet we also need these new looks at our old stories to do something new with the tales, or it's not worth our time to watch/read/hear them.
A couple of weeks ago, I came across a fake trailer for a Where's Waldo movie (as far as I know, this is unaffiliated with the official Where's Waldo), featuring Waldo as a rogue secret agent who has turned psychotic assassination:
To me, this is so, so wrong. I would love to see a Where's Waldo movie where Waldo is a secret agent. I could even get behind one who is tired, alone, and disillusioned. But the whole point of the film would have to be about him rediscovering his joy on this "one last mission." I can't imagine that the whimsy and excitement of the Waldo of the books would ever turn into a homicidal maniac as this fake movie portrays him. The core of me rejects that so strongly, that I had to actually convince myself that I should embed the video, rather than just link to it.
On the other hand, a few weeks ago, the denizens of the garden had an off-site discussion about how much we really, really, really wish that this was a real movie in the world:
Ms Frizzle trapped in hell? Adult versions of her students have to go rescue her? Sounds nuts, but the whole trailer, from the crazy earrings to the casting of the students is pitch perfect (with the possible exception of the wig they put on Arnold). This is a movie I want to see. The characters feel like themselves and the story, for all it's set in a mythical (or at least, not proven by science) place, feels like a location grownup versions of the Magic School Bus cast would journey to - so it stays true to the original story. It has some peril and interesting new character dynamics, so that adult audiences will be interested - that is, it brings something new to the experience. So it checks off both necessary points for a revist. And, one hopes, that to save Ms Frizzle, the class will have to use some of the science they learned as kids. That would make this (hypothetical) film perfect.
I know, it's easy to tell me that I'm taking this way too seriously. "Come on," I can hear, "It's just stories for kids. It doesn't matter that much." But think about it. Haven't you seen something - something that was so dear to you as a child - that a remake (or sequel) rings untrue? Maybe it was the Inspector Gadget movie? Or Garfield? Or The Phantom Menace? Whatever it was, didn't it make you squirm? Or reduce you to rage mutterings? Or take just a tiny bit of the shiny-ness off of your childhood memories?
On Reading Rainbow, LeVar Burton taught us to love reading by showing us that by reading we encountered the biggest adventures, throughout the whole universe of human experience. He taught us that books could be funny, and sad, and thought provoking; that books changed us, for the better. Most of my friends can still sing the Reading Rainbow theme song, even now, 20 years after most of us last watched an episode, the show resonated that deeply with us.
And because of this, I find that I can not get behind this remix. Even though it cleverly references Melies' A Trip to the Moon, which always wins points with me, it's auto-toned tunelessness is at direct odds with what a good revisiting should be. They offer nothing new to the Reading Rainbow universe - no hidden gem, no fresh take, nothing. And they dismantle the charm and lyricism of the show as I remember it. The repetitive, seeming endlessness of the video feels like a soul deadening technique rather than an homage to a show that was world expanding - tired and faded, instead of invigorating.
I can't tell you how much I wanted this video to be different. I wanted it to be clever and witty and to bring me to a place I hadn't seen before. Because this is not the Reading Rainbow I want to remember, and I don't want this video to erase the memories I have of the program, something it is capable of doing.2
PBS makes these remixes, perhaps, as a way to introduce these people who are so important to us, as adults, to our next generation. Maybe this is what appeals to that next generation. So maybe they aren't a bad thing. But I can't help but feel that there must be a way to make that introduction more palatable for the rest of us, and more representative of what the original shows were about. What's happening here, as much as it might make us laugh for a second or two, feels like false advertising.
1 For the purposes of this post, a retelling would be telling a known story over again, with the same characters and basic plot structure; it's more commonly called a remake. All of the gazillion versions of Cinderella would be examples of a retelling. Revisiting is taking the same characters and putting them in familar, but new, situations and settings, creating a new story (or experience). Alternatively, the original plot could remain the same, but with emphasis on different characters, dramatically changing the story. The sequel movie, like Men in Black II, is generally an example of a revisiting.
2 I'm not even going to mention the Mister Rogers' Remix, because I truly can't bring myself to watch it (or the new PBS animated Mister Rogers' Neighborhood show). Mister Rogers is just too sacred for me to take the risk.
"Reading Rainbow Remixed | In Your Imagination | PBS Digital Studios." YouTube. December 3, 2012. Accessed December 3, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FD1K8OvVCs.
"The Magic School Bus: The Movie Trailer (Fan-Made Parody)." YouTube. November 8, 2012. Accessed December 3, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rce6HTFBaFg.
"Where's Waldo: The Movie." EBaum's World. March 4, 2012. Accessed December 3, 2012. http://www.ebaumsworld.com/video/watch/82338998/.