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"Tales from Avonlea" The Complete First Season DVD Review

Buy Tales from Avonlea: The Complete First Season from Amazon.com Avonlea: Season One (1990)
Show & DVD Details

Directors: Don McBrearty, Bruce Pittman, Dick Benner, Harvey Frost, Stuart Gillard

Executive Producers: Kevin Sullivan, Trudy Grant

Regular Writers: Heather Conkie, Suzette Couture / Story Editor: Lucie Hall

Regular Cast: Sarah Polley (Sara Stanley), Jackie Burroughs (Hetty King), Lally Cadeau (Janet King), Cedric Smith (Alec King), Gema Zamprogna (Felicity King), Mag Ruffman (Olivia King), Zachary Bennett (Felix King)

Recurring Characters: Joel Blake (Andrew King), Harmony Cramp (Cecily King), R.H. Thomson (Jasper Dale), Patricia Hamilton (Rachel Lynde), Colleen Dewhurst (Marilla Cuthbert), Susan Cox (Peg Bowen), Marc Worden (Edward Ray), Malcolm Stoddard (Malcolm MacEwan), Rosemary Dunsmore (Aunt Abigail), Robert Collins (Blair Stanley), Miklos Perlus (Peter Craig), Gillian Steeve (Clemmie Ray), Tara Meyer (Sally Potts), Valentina Cardinalli (Jane Spry), James O'Regan (Constable Jeffries), Maja Ardal (Mrs. Potts), Barbara Gordon (Mrs. Ray), Les Carlson (Mr. Lawson)

Notable Guest Stars: Frances Hyland (Nanny Banks), John Gilbert (Mr. Campbell), W.O. Mitchell (Alexander Abraham), Tom Peacock (Duncan McTavish), Lloyd Bochner (Mr. Cameron), Rebecca Jenkins (Sylvia Gray), Zoe Caldwell (Old Lady Lloyd), Paul Haddad (Theodore Simpkin), Fiona Reid (Mrs. Craig), Dan MacDonald (Judson Parker), Wayne Robson (Amos Spry), Ron White (Mr. Tyler)

Running Time: 571 Minutes (13 episodes) / Rating: Not Rated
1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Broadcast Ratio) / Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired; Closed Captioned
DVD Release Date: November 8, 2005
Season 1 Airdates: January 7, 1990 - November 11, 1990
Three single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9s); Suggested Retail Price: $34.99
Three individual clear slim keepcases with cardboard slipcover

By Renata Joy

Producer/director Kevin Sullivan is no stranger to Victorian Canada, most particularly Prince Edward Island. No, he is not a historical figure: he was not even alive until the middle of the 1950s. Sullivan's claim to this era is that since the mid-1980s, he has brought a number of works from Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery to the small screen.

The hour-long Disney Channel drama "Tales from Avonlea" (originally called "Road to Avonlea" in Canada, or as each episode from this set is titled, simply "Avonlea") is loosely based on four of the celebrated writer's books. There are The Story Girl and The Golden Road, both novels which center around the trials and tribulations of the extended King family, the focal point of the television series. Other ideas for episode plots come from Chronicles of Avonlea and Further Chronicles of Avonlea, two collections of short stories which take place in the fictional town first made popular in the Anne of Green Gables series, the books for which L.M. Montgomery is most well-known.

"Avonlea" follows Sara Stanley (Sarah Polley), a young girl who leaves her upper-class life in Montreal to stay indefinitely with her late mother's relatives, the Kings, a prominent and large clan in the small town of Avonlea. She is sent by her father, a business owner who has been falsely accused of embezzlement and wishes Sara to be far from any sort of trouble caused by the scandal.

There's plenty of running through fields in the opening credits sequence, which features this yellow "Avonlea" title. Sarah Polley plays Sara Stanley, the young protagonist of this series.

Apparently, Mr. Stanley is not a favorite among the King family, and is particularly disliked by Sara's old maid Aunt Hetty (Jackie Burroughs), the oldest and strictest
of the brood, also the town's schoolmarm. She is also the head of Rose Cottage, the site of Sara's new home, which she shares with Aunt Olivia (Mag Ruffman), who is not only younger than Aunt Hetty but also nicer and much more pulchritudinous. Not too far away lives the rest of the King family, comprised of Uncle Alec (Cedric Smith) and Aunt Janet (Lally Cadeau), and cousins Felicity (Gema Zamprogna), the pretty and snobby one, Felix (Zachary Bennett), the sarcastic one, and Cecily (Harmony Cramp), the nice and somewhat boring one. Staying with this group is another cousin, Andrew (Joel Blake), who is also new to Avonlea. Coincidentally, the original books following the Kings are told from his perspective and his name was Beverly (Felix also is his brother in that version, but I'm getting rather carried away). In any case, the Kings are a large and close-knit family and that's all that needs to be said about them.

At first, fans of the novels might feel a little disoriented in this strange hybrid of L.M. Montgomery's works. Marilla Cuthbert and Rachel Lynde, substantial characters in the Anne of Green Gables stories, make a number of appearances. Also, many might be surprised to discover that Aunt Hetty is nowhere to be found in the King family's origins. She perhaps most closely resembles Aunt Elizabeth from the Emily of New Moon trilogy. Admittedly, it is odd to see characters from one series of books interacting with those from a different setting. However, if one is open to changes (and nobody likes those who are not), there is a great deal of fun to be had. In the long run, it needs to be accepted that the world presented in "Avonlea" is not a mirror image of L.M. Montgomery's creations, but it comes pretty close.

As usual, Aunt Hetty has done something to annoy her kin. Marilla Cuthbert (Colleen Dewhurst) and Rachel Lynde (Patricia Hamilton) are among the recurring Avonlea townsfolk.

Typical of L.M. Montgomery fare, "Avonlea" presents a fairly large variety of characters, each with their own quirks. The fact that there are so many personalities and a multitude of plots featuring each makes for no shortage of enjoyable viewing. True, the King family, particularly the children, assume the majority of screentime, but their stories are rarely limited to them alone and are readily expanded to include passing or recurring individuals. The resulting effect is that the viewer feels very much a part of this small town and there is always something to occupy one's interest.

This is far from the first appearance that "Avonlea" has made on the DVD format. The series made its Region 1 debut in February 2003, with the release of The Complete First Season from Sullivan Entertainment, the executive producer's company. This 4-disc box set originated from Sullivan's home country, Canada, and never made it to stores south of the border. Subsequent seasons have followed; most recently, Season Five became available in June. Overseas, individual episodes made their way to disc as early as 2001. In the United States, Disney's video branch Buena Vista Home Entertainment holds distribution rights. They first released the series (with this new title "Tales from Avonlea") in March of 2004 as a two-disc compilation subtitled Beginnings, holding eight episodes from the first and early second season.

This November, alongside three widely-admired series from the 1980s, Disney nonchalantly released "Tales from Avonlea": The Complete First Season, a 3-disc set containing all 13 episodes from the series' debut year. While this chronological collection offers an ever so slightly higher per-episode cost than the recently-reduced Beginnings, it offers massive savings over the previous exclusive and now sole alternative Sullivan set. The Canadian releases of the first four seasons' carried a list price of $102 CDN (about $80 US). Even with the typical Internet discounts and a lower suggested retail price (SRP) on the fifth season, the Sullivan Entertainment box sets typically cost you about $55-$70 USD. By contrast, upon release, Disney's set (bearing the modest SRP of $34.99) sold for less than half that on Amazon.com.

Sounds pretty good so far, right? Unfortunately, there is a trade-off for the much lower American retail price. For reasons unknown, Disney's Season 1 set contains shortened cuts of all but one of the episodes within. Here, each show runs in the neighborhood of 44 minutes. This entails a loss of footage, ranging from 17 seconds on "The Story Girl Earns Her Name" to a whopping nearly 13 minutes on the debut episode "The Journey Begins." Most episodes are missing about 1-2 minutes, but several lose 3-7 minutes. Altogether, Disney's box runs just a shade under 571 minutes long, or just under 40 full minutes shorter than Sullivan's Season 1 set. That is no insignificant loss; it amounts to almost a full episode's worth of missing content. What's worse is the inexplicably absent footage is not merely standalone sequences; the episodes are marked by frustrating fadeouts that prematurely leave several a scene before it reaches its dramatic conclusion. As the Disney Channel has never had traditional commercials and, as far as I know, "Avonlea" has never appeared in reruns on any other ad-supported network, the shortened versions aren't obvious syndicated cuts. Nor were they likely done to provide optimal picture and sound, for Disney's set is sorely lacking in both departments (as all previous DVD versions are complained to be).

Following is a list of the First Season episodes with a star () marking my five favorites.

Sara's nanny, accustomed to always being at the girl's side, must have been surprised that her services were needed for not even one full episode. There will be no drinking of alcohol under Rachel Lynde's watch! Otherwise, she'll send you to...Halifax. Duncan McTavish is all smiles at the crowds gathered to see him. Little does he know he's the subject of some hott gossip.

DISC 1 (Volume One)

1. The Journey Begins (44:13) (Originally aired January 7, 1990)
The first episode of the series follows Sara on her journey to Avonlea, along with her overbearing Nanny. Aunt Hetty is most definitely not pleased with the idea of a nanny living under her roof and is finally able to make her leave via local law enforcement. Sara and Andrew, who has also just arrived in Avonlea, devise a plan to get back at their other cousins who are slow to accept newcomers with the help of local "witch" Peg Bowen.

2. The Story Girl Earns Her Name (43:53) (Originally aired January 14, 1990)
A benefit magic lantern show planned to help pay for new library books turns disastrous when the coordinator runs off with the ticket money before the show has even taken place. Determined to rake in the most money, Sara takes it upon herself to put together her own magic lantern show with the aid of stammering Jasper Dale, otherwise known as The Awkward Man. Her narration of "The Little Match Girl" earns her a new nickname in town, a name which she only lives up to once in the first season, much unlike her literary counterpart.

3. The Quarantine at Alexander Abraham's (44:01) (Originally aired January 21, 1990)
Rachel Lynde, Avonlea's resident busybody, takes on position of Sunday School teacher at the local church and takes it upon herself to call on (and subsequently let herself into the house of) bachelor Alexander Abraham, resident hater of women, to inquire after his hired boy who has been absent from recent sessions. As it happens, the boy is in the hospital with smallpox and the entire house is under quarantine. As a result, the couple are forced to live with one another for a matter of weeks, along with Sara and Felix, who have also found themselves in the ill-fated house in a rather contrived fashion. Can Rachel and Alexander put aside their differences and learn to get along? Only time, and a couple more cases of smallpox, will tell.

4. The Materializing of Duncan (44:00) (Originally aired January 28, 1990)
Marilla Cuthbert never married and has had but one (unsuccessful) love in her life (see Anne of Green Gables). Amid a gossipy sewing group, she feels the need to create another past flame, one that nobody has heard from. The name Duncan McTavish arises from 1) a particularly favorite first name and 2) a name she sees in a newspaper ad concerning a drug peddler. Imagine her surprise when the real Duncan McTavish comes to town to sell his wares! As can be expected, a moral is in store: Don't make up stories because they will probably come back and bite you in the backside. Kevin Sullivan aficionados will recognize music from his Anne of Green Gables mini-series playing throughout this episode, including the opening and closing credits.

"Would you like some TEA? TEEEEAAA!" Aunt Abigail and Malcolm MacEwan take the foreground in two consecutive episodes. Here, the rich cigar-smoker shows off his newly-acquired (and paraded) big bed set. The presence of local "witch" Peg Bowen at church creates feelings of unease for many, including her.

DISC 2 (Volume Two)

5. Song of the Night (a.k.a. Old Lady Lloyd) (42:51) (Originally aired February 4, 1990)
Shenanigans of the King children lands Sara inside the decrepit mansion of Old Lady Lloyd, whose pastimes include moping around the family cemetery and getting scolded by Peg Bowen for moping in the first place. As coincidences go, a singer friend of Aunt Olivia is visiting, who is the daughter of Miss Lloyd's lover of yore. Some friendly interference from Sara encourages the miserable recluse to mend ties with wealthy relations in order to start the musical career of her would-be daughter.

6. Proof of the Pudding (44:02) (Originally aired February 11, 1990)
In one of the more amusing episodes of the season, the young Kings (plus one Stanley) are left alone for the weekend sans adult supervision. Felicity is in charge of the gang during this time and her bossiness drives Felix to eat some berries which may or may not be poisonous. At the same time, the governor's wife comes to visit, only the kids treat her as their hearing-impaired great-aunt.

7. Aunt Abigail's Beau (44:01) (Originally aired February 25, 1990)
In this episode, we are introduced to yet another member of the family, Aunt Abigail (Rosemary Dunsmore of Anne of Avonlea). There seems to be a number of old maids in Avonlea and she is yet another of them. Fastidiously neat and extremely set in her ways, she seems well-prepared to live a life of spinster-hood until an old beau, Malcolm MacEwan, returns to town having struck it rich in Alaska and is determined to marry her. The mystery here is whether Aunt Abigail will be able to overlook some dirty boots and a personality or if she will kick Malcolm to the curb.

8. Malcolm and the Baby (43:54) (Originally aired March 4, 1990)
Believe it or not, opposites do attract, and Malcolm and Abigail have just returned from their honeymoon. Everything is going fine and dandy until Malcolm decides he wants a baby, something that his wife does not even want to think about. Meanwhile, a young couple in a different town has died, leaving behind a baby over whose custody Rachel Lynde (a distant relative) and Aunt Hetty (a distant friend) are fighting. Believing this to be just what Malcolm and Aunt Abigail need, Felicity and Sara take the baby and leave it on the newlyweds' doorstep. Meanwhile, Rachel and Hetty duke it out over an argument dating back to the seventh grade. (That's a long time.)

9. Conversions (43:55) (Originally aired February 18, 1990)
After being inspired by a visit from a missionary, Sara decides to try and convert Rose Cottage hired boy Peter to Presbyterianism. Not exactly a "heathen" but is heading down the dangerous road (by Avonlea standards) to become a Methodist like his aunt. Because of this, and more so because of his working status, he has trouble fitting in with the others and can relate more with Peg Bowen then any other citizen of Avonlea. And then, as sometimes happens, Peter becomes very ill and only then do people appreciate him. And, of course, it takes Peg Bowen's medicine, the unconventional cure, to make him better.

Clemmie Ray gets a princess makeover without the aid of the "Cinderella" DVD. Move over Woodward and Bernstein, Jasper Dale and Olivia King make one dynamic duo...of journalists. Mr. Stanley worries over the status of his daughter Pollyanna...I mean, Sara Stanley.

DISC 3 (Volume Three)

10. Felicity's Challenge (43:51) (Originally aired May 7, 1990)
It's autumn harvest time and every year in Avonlea there's a Harvest Ball complete with costumes. In a sort of Pygmalion-esque twist, Felicity takes on a bet from some snooty classmates which involves transforming odd duck Clemmie Ray into a charming princess for the ball. Needless to say, it is a challenge (hence the clever title). Meanwhile, Uncle Alec refuses to be swayed by a political candidate.

11. The Hope Chest of Arabella King (a.k.a. The Blue Chest of Arabella King) (44:00) (Originally aired November 4, 1990)
A distant aunt (there are oh so many of these in the King family) has died, meaning that it is now time to unlock her hope chest and to learn of her tragic love story. At the same time, Aunt Olivia, along with Jasper Dale as her trusty photographer not to mention potential love interest, is struggling to find material worth promoting her to reporter for the Avonlea newspaper. "Time" will tell whether this family tale will merit a front-page story.

12. The Witch of Avonlea (44:08) (Originally aired October 21, 1990)
Felix is having spelling difficulties which result in an afternoon spent sitting in the corner wearing a dunce cap (that Aunt Hetty rules her schoolhouse with a strong arm). It takes a visit to Peg Bowen to give Felix the confidence (read: magic) he needs to win an all-important spelling bee. Who's the witch of Avonlea now, Aunt Hetty?

13. Nothing Endures But Change (44:05) (Originally aired November 11, 1990)
In the final episode of the season, Sara's father, apparently acquitted of his alleged crimes, comes to Avonlea to take Sara back to Montreal. His presence in the area brings much distress to Aunt Hetty, who still blames him for her younger sister's death and there is a fight of a very angry variety. Sara, caught up in the stress of the moment, somehow manages to fall a few stories in a Pollyanna sort of way (dramatic, I know). She comes out with only a minor leg fracture and concussion, but the brief moment of uncertainty pertaining to her situation unites family members and mends disagreements. This is probably the most contrived plot of the season but wraps things up nicely, while at the same time paving the way for more adventures. As it turns out, Sara will not be going back to Montreal, but has decided to remain in Avonlea for the time being. Stay tuned for Season Two.

W-w-why don't you come with me, little girl, on a magic lantern ride? The King children provide entertainment in spite of their DVD's visual shortcomings.

VIDEO and AUDIO

"Avonlea" is presented in 1.33:1 fullscreen, which is appropriate considering that this is
the original aspect ratio. Not particularly appropriate is the lack of restoration evident here. These episodes are merely fifteen years old, but the video quality suggests they are far older. The softness and fuzziness of the picture give one the impression of viewing the shows through a screen door or watching a VHS of the series recorded directly off the television. The picture is underwhelming in every possible way; even the show's muted color palette seems excessively drab. Contrast is lacking enough so that action in dark scenes sometimes becomes difficult to discern. There is some range to the caliber of the video, but at no time does the show ever approach what could be constituted as even decent DVD quality, in consideration of its origins and Disney's ability to regularly revitalize old works.

The previously-released Sullivan sets garnered their fair share of criticism in the picture department. Without seeing them, I can't make a direct comparison, but I can't imagine the Canadian DVDs looking any worse. In fact, I can't imagine any 15-year-old television show released by a major studio looking as rough and troubled as "Avonlea" does here.

Sound quality is not as bad as picture, but there is definitely room for improvement. Most noticeable of the Dolby Stereo soundtrack's flaws are the somewhat rare occasions where the audio goes out of synch with the video. Of course, if you are a fan of watching dubbed foreign films, this aspect of the DVD transfer might be something you find endearing. There is little range to the dynamics and little else remarkable about the sound presentation. Dialogue is generally understandable, if not as crisp as you'd like for a barely-teenaged show, and the soft score comes through just well enough to appreciate.

Felix ponders the absence of bonus feature and several minutes from each episode. The "Tales from Avonlea" Season 1 - Volume 1 (Disc 1) Main Menu

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Unfortunately, Disney hasn't seen "Avonlea" fit to be accompanied by any bonus features, new or old. On the first disc of Sullivan's First Season set, the premiere episode was joined by 9 minutes of screen tests and a 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette. Whether or not either could have been included, they were not, which is bound to disappoint fans. More than even movies, the release of television shows on DVD often lends itself to nostalgia, which either newly-created or archival supplements can both serve. The lack of extras is nothing unusual for the studio, though. Each of the three TV show box sets concurrently issued similarly went without any kind of supplements.

The three discs of this Season 1 collection are packaged in a cardboard box and stored individually in clear slim keepcases. The back of each case provides a brief overview of the episodes, with a summary accompanied by writer, director, and guest cast information.

The 16x9-enhanced menus are very simple - there is no animation or accompanying music (unlike the Sullivan DVDs). There are pictures of various scenes and characters; several recycled, more than a few taken from the opening credits montage, and most relegated to watermarked background. The Episode Selections menus rely merely upon titles (not even pictures) for your choosing, but at least they don't list extraneous episodes as the Sullivan discs did. Each disc is equipped with a "Play All" option for those who like their TV DVDs in doses of 3+ hours. A number of chapter stops are provided, though not as many as you might hope for on an hour-long show and not always in the places you'd suspect. For instance, attempting to skip the lengthy opening credits sequence will make you miss a good deal more.

If you merely skimmed through this review, then Aunt Hetty has just the thing for you: a dunce cap! (Or is that merely her witch hat?) Post-church gossip among the mostly blonde young females of Avonlea.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Though loosely adapted from a hodgepodge of L.M. Montgomery's writings, "Avonlea" consistently pleases with its character-driven small town tales. Such a strong show would merit a wholehearted recommendation if Disney's First Season DVD treatment did something other than plainly disappoint. This 3-disc collection improves upon the previous Canadian DVD release from Sullivan Entertainment only in price; Disney's set can be had for less than half the cost of its expensive northern counterpart. Poor video and audio quality, the absence of any bonus features (including two which appeared on Sullivan's set), and the disconcerting loss of 40 minutes of content all add up to one Halifax of a letdown for those with fond early '90s Disney Channel memories and those craving some good old-fashioned family fun. While such careless treatment can't rob "Avonlea" of its period charms, the series deserves far better than this, which only satisfies in the fact that it preserves this gem in chronological order.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com



Buy Sullivan Entertainment's unedited Road to Avonlea:
The Complete First Season
DVD (Canada, Region 1) from Amazon.ca

Complete Anne of Green Gables Box Set (contains 8 books) The Story Girl The Golden Road Chronicles of Avonlea Further Chronicles of Avonlea
Lucy Maud Montgomery's Books that Inspired Avonlea:
Complete Anne of Green Gables Box Set
The Story Girl
The Golden Road
Chronicles of Avonlea
Further Chronicles of Avonlea

UltimateDisney.com | DVD Reviews Index | Complete Guide to Disney TV Shows on DVD

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Reviewed November 20, 2005.