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Disney Educational Productions DVDs Roundup - June 2009

The Science of Disney Imagineering • Timon and Pumbaa • Bill Nye the Science Guy

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The Walt Disney Studios' home entertainment division has revealed itself to be rigid and systematic in recent years. The company has limited DVD releases to the latest theatrical films and ABC television series, evergreen animated properties with long-guaranteed audiences, and new/popular preschool and tween Disney Channel franchises. Beyond those classes, the occasional father-friendly sports drama will turn up on the much-touted Blu-ray format,
while any live-action title that could ever be called old or obscure might be relegated to second-rate status as a Disney Movie Club exclusive. But, as any devoted Disney fan can tell you, there's a lot more to the studios' library than what's been offered lately. There's also more being offered than Disney fans may know about.

The Disney company fan base may not be the chief target audience of Disney Educational Productions, a division which makes DVDs tailored for Kindergarten to Grade 12 classroom use, but it is one which should definitely be interested in learning of the rare, narrowly-distributed discs DEP has been putting out. Meanwhile, educators with an appreciation for Disney entertainment should relish this programming that imparts values and enlightens with the use of Disney characters and theme park attractions.

Disney Educational Productions traces its origins back to the 1940s, when Walt Disney and his animators began producing educational shorts for various U.S. governmental departments during wartime efforts. This century, the division has amped up efforts to create hundreds of DVD titles that deliver both educational and entertainment value. Some DEP discs, dubbed Classroom Editions, take widely-available movies and supplement them with exclusive content that informs on such topics as math, science, social studies, and language. Among the titles given such treatment are Pixar's WALL•E, The Chronicles of Narnia films, and a number of Wonderful World of Disney TV movies with literary and/or historical roots. High school-tailored Classroom Editions bring a similar approach to ABC News reports on various contemporary and historical social issues.

The Disney Educational Productions logo and motto ("Building thinkers every day") is found at the start of each of the division's DVDs. Toy Story Midway Mania is fun, but it's also Science in work, as we learn in the Science of Disney Imagineering: Design and Models DVD.

Other DEP DVDs are completely original creations. The six subjects of this review, released from February to April 2009, fall into this class. They employ Disney characters, locations, and personalities to teach science, safety, and healthy habits.

If you're not accustomed to ordering such media for school use, you'll notice a couple of things right off the bat. The DVDs are short. The feature program runtimes of 11-31 minutes ensure a complete viewing is easy to manage even in the shortest of class periods. They're also pricey, as far as DVDs go. Prices range from $39.95 to $49.95, but those rates include public performance rights. (In the fine print of standard DVD copyrights is a clause limiting to private home use, although there are two legitimate exemptions.)

Read on for a closer look at three Science of Disney Imagineering programs, two Wild About Safety: Timon and Pumbaa shorts, and one Bill Nye the Science Guy title, all now available for purchase.
 

The Science of Disney Imagineering: Fluids DVD cover
Fluids
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The Science of Disney Imagineering: Design and Models DVD cover
Design and Models
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The Science of Disney Imagineering: Energy DVD cover
Energy
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The Science of Disney Imagineering

Grade Levels: 5-8 / Price: $49.95 each

Release Date: March 30, 2009

Series Producers: Kathy Kuchta, Dan Staedler / Creative Content Producer: Michael E. Zack

Host: Asa Kalama


As is evident from the series' title, The Science of Imagineering DVDs (Grades 4-8) illuminate the scientific properties in use at the assortment of fun attractions in Walt Disney World and Disneyland theme parks.
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These programs subscribe to the philosophies of "Beakman's World" and Bill Nye, which is that science is best enjoyed and absorbed with regular doses of humor.

The Disney park experience doesn't often translate well to video. Whether they're costly commemorative souvenirs or free trip planners, the company's official park DVDs end up feeling slick, promotional, and shallow. Even television content set in the parks -- be it a sitcom vacation episode, an ABC special presentation, or the aired-around-the-clock footage of Disney hotel channels -- comes across as trying to interest you in a trip.

It is no small relief, then, that these Science of Imagineering DVDs don't play out the same way. The first one I watched, Fluids, struck me for truly keeping educational value as its foremost goal. Had I watched Design and Models first, I may have had a different initial impression. This installment focuses squarely on the latest and next park attractions and perhaps inevitably shows more of a marketing hand at work. The third volume I reviewed, Energy, fell somewhere in between, meeting the expectations the other two led me to form.

Amusing host Imagineer Asa Kalama stands and teaches from this busy, colorful laboratory room. A Disney cast member has just what Asa Kalama needs to demonstrate the displacement of water in front of the Mark Twain Riverboat.

It can't hurt that even when promotional restraint is exhibited, seeing fun rides in action makes a person ready to visit the parks. An unspoken goal may be that these DVDs in some way lay the groundwork and educational justification for taking a class trip to Disney World/Disneyland.

The line's greatest strength is Asa Kalama, a research and development Imagineer who hosts these programs. Kalama is charismatic and witty, but he also shows a genuine interest in the subject matter, elevating him above the actors of vacation planning guides who exude phony enthusiasm.

Kalama's hosting duties give him a mix of direct camera addresses and on-site interviews of fellow Imagineers. It's unclear how much of the latter chats are scripted and how involved the interview subjects were in the ride design process. These thoughts won't ever enter the minds of most middle school-aged viewers, however, as they should be far more interested in seeing the attractions and learning how they employ scientific principles with which they're hopefully familiar.

Spicing up the series is the use of simple, humorous black and white stick figure animation, the subjects of which (monkeys, a cow, a caveman) get a spot on the DVDs' covers.

With his trademark big earring facing the attraction, veteran Imagineer Joe Rohde compares an Expedition Everest model to the mountain itself, pointing out design features that add to its presence. This simple but effective stick figure animation illustrates how potential energy is converted to kinetic energy while riding a big water slide.

How does the 15,000-ton Mark Twain Riverboat stay afloat the Rivers of America? How do hydraulic fluids power Animal Kingdom's Dinosaur ride?
How can we see buoyancy in action at Epcot's Finding Nemo aquariums? What makes California Adventure's Grizzly River Run run? Fluids (26:52) answers these and other questions. Asa defines fluids and their properties. Also, in the most original sequence, he comes up with an idea for the Pneumatic Food-Matic 5000, a device inspired by the tubes that transport deposits at banks. He reasons that using differing pressures could quickly deliver park guests their meals anywhere they are.

More theoretical than practical, Design and Models (30:34) feels like more of a behind-the-scenes of Disney World than a study of scientific principles. That makes it less useful for classrooms, but of greater interest to Disney park fans. The program turns our attention to the latest attractions. It deals with Animal Kingdom's Expedition Everest at greatest length, addressing the models, computer planning, lighting and sound design that shaped the roller coaster. Next, we look at Toy Story Midway Mania, learning how the interactive 3-D experience was developed first with plywood and a paper towel tube and perfected through extensive use of "playtesting." Our closing moments provide a taste of CarsLand, an environment based on Pixar's much-merchandised 2006 hit that is anticipated to open in 2011 (alongside Cars 2) but presently being dreamt up with models and virtual reality. In the opening scenes, Asa explains the problem solving process (brainstorming, acknowledging constraints, and so on) with a hypothetical scenario involving tutu-wearing monkeys invading a living room.

While Energy (24:12) opens at Expedition Everest, fears of retread ground and recycled material are quickly allayed. Asa explains the concept of energy, with a caveman reference and animation. Then, he takes us to see it in use at various attractions. The first stop is Fantasyland's Mad Tea Party, where the spinning tea cups illustrate the transference and conservation of energy. Then, we climb up and go down the giant water slide at Blizzard Beach's Summit Plummet, an exercise which clearly demonstrates the relationship of potential energy and kinetic energy and how it applies to slide design. A short visit to Test Track touches on electrical energy, one to the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage mentions the ride's environmental friendliness, and Epcot's solar panels are discussed. Then it's back to Everest, where potential and kinetic energy are again tackled, this time in terms of the ride's story and design.
 

Disney's Wild About Safety: Timon and Pumbaa - Safety Smart In the Water! DVD cover
Safety Smart in the Water!
Release Date: April 27, 2009
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Disney's Wild About Safety: Timon and Pumbaa

Grade Levels: K-3 / Price: $39.95 each

Director/Producer: David Bossert / Writer: Douglas Segal

Voice Cast: Ernie Sabella (Pumbaa), Bruce Lanoil (Timon)
Disney's Wild About Safety: Timon and Pumbaa - Safety Smart Goes Green! DVD cover
Safety Smart Goes Green!
Release Date: February 23, 2009
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We're all familiar with instances of celebrities and brands selling out. There's certainly potential here for the beloved, ordinarily carefree sidekicks from The Lion King to lose their charm while preaching their causes. Gladly, that's not the case in these new Safety Smart shorts sponsored by the Underwriters Laboratories.

These two inspired cartoons, the second and third in the line, somehow feel right in using the sarcastic meerkat and hefty warthog to convey valuable ideas about staying safe and being good to the planet. Here, clipboard-wielding Pumbaa comes across as the safe one while impulsive Timon needs guidance. The entertainment value makes the didactic nature of the shorts easy to take and heed. Children are sure to pay attention to this goofy duo and remember the lessons they share.

The animation by Duck Studios obviously isn't on par with the original film and it's clearly limited, but it's faithful to the universe (one director/producer Dave Bossert worked on as an effects animator) and appealing enough. The voice work is solid as well, with Ernie Sabella returning as the warm Pumbaa and Bruce Lanoil doing an adequate job of channeling Nathan Lane. Frankly, the productions are more satisfying than some of Disney's direct-to-video sequels, Lion King ones excluded.

Pumbaa wields a Safety Smart clipboard in Timon and his new UL-sponsored cartoon shorts. Timon is reminded of the hazards of diving into the unknown just in time for him to stop this unsafe dive.

Each short closes with a song that reviews the lessons learned. Via an early line, each one also features a callback to the pair's memorable anthem "Hakuna Matata."

In Timon and Pumbaa: Safety Smart Goes Green! (11:47), Pumbaa teaches Timon to properly dispose of his empty water bottle. When they discover their favorite vacation spot has dried up, they talk about other ways to conserve energy, like turning lights off, reducing, reusing, and recycling. This reminded me of the Circle of Life short film that's shown in Epcot, only without Simba and those bike-riding '90s girls.

Timon and Pumbaa: Safety Smart in the Water! (11:38) follows the friends as they prepare for some outdoor swimming. In the process, Pumbaa tells Timon and us about the importance of sunscreen, life jackets, treading water, walking (not running) around pools, and not going to the bathroom in the water. Once again, humor effectively keeps this from being blandly instructional. Anyone who recognizes the clever homage to Disney's Little Mermaid will appreciate it.
 

Safety Smart Science with Bill Nye the Science Guy: Fire DVD cover
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Safety Smart Science with Bill Nye the Science Guy: Fire

Grade Levels: 4-8 / Price: $39.95 / Release Date: February 23, 2009

Director: Phillip Scarpaci / Producer: Pattie Kelly / Writer: Mark Scarpaci

Cast: Bill Nye the Science Guy, Donna Pieroni (Cuisina), Michael Alexander, Tabitha Morella, Myia Hubbard, Keisha and Kellie Ramdhanie, Maura Barclay, Daniel Ermel, Brenna Revis, Preston Tate, Eleanor Yuhas


Bill Nye, the actor-comedian who became one of the two famous science personalities of 1990s children's television (the other being Paul Zaloom's Beakman), is still providing Disney with his brand of entertaining educational content. It's just a lot harder to discover on DEP DVDs than it was onpublic television. This second installment of Underwriters Laboratories-sponsored Safety Smart Science is titled Fire (26:22) and rightfully so.

Nye conveys the concept of fire as a triangle that needs all three sides (heat, fuel, and oxygen) to exist. In a UL safety lab, he demonstrates three methods you can use to put out a fire. He illustrates three types of heat transfer with hot dogs cooking in different kinds of ovens.

This program actually feels most like a TV series, one that would be very much at home on PBS. It is arranged like a variety show. Cooking show "Cooking with Cuisina" warns us of dangerous grease fires, a talk show host interviews a fireball, and twin girls perform a closing music video. Of course, Bill Nye remains the most prominent component and he has still very much got the same appeal he had 15 years ago, comfortably and authoritatively dispensing knowledge but with the humorous delivery of his subtly offbeat persona.

The only source of nuisance is the regular onscreen text reminding us that staged demonstrations are controlled; the notice at the beginning and a reiteration at the end would have been sufficient.

Bill Nye the Science Guy uses hot dogs cooking in ovens to explain different types of heat transfer. This talk show host scores a hot interview with a fireball. Get it, "hot"?

VIDEO and AUDIO

With the exception of Timon and Pumbaa... in the Water! and Bill Nye... Fire, each main program can be viewed in either 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen or cropped fullscreen. (Those two wisely forgo the fullscreen option.) The features are all presented in basic two-channel stereo sound. In light of the light content, compression is a non-issue and while these single-layered discs aren't ones you'd use to wow a class on DVD's amazing picture and sound abilities, there are no concerns more troubling than a slight and occasional odd hollow quality to the audio.

You haven't seen language selection screens like the ones on the Timon and Pumbaa shorts before. The cartoons can be viewed in an astonishing 15 different languages: English, Spanish, Castilian, Chinese, Danish, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Kannada, Korean, Marathi, Portuguese, and Tamil. Maybe I'm uncultured, but I had to look a few of these up to make sure Disney wasn't inventing languages here. Selecting a foreign language automatically activates a subtitle track that translates on-screen text, but not dialogue. Otherwise, the DVDs are not subtitled, but they are equipped with English closed captions. One minor disappointment: you can't toggle languages during playback.

Fewer soundtrack choices are found on the English-only Imagineering DVDs and the English & Spanish Bill Nye disc, neither of which holds any subtitles.

BONUS EDUCATIONAL FEATURES

Special features are called "educational features" here and each of these six DEP DVDs includes a few.

Asa Kalama squints a one-eyed look at the Newton's cradle he teaches how to build on "Energy." The "Test Your Knowledge" quizzes give you an "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" moment. Is it true or false? It wouldn't be a true Educator's Guide without a reassuring answer key.

Each Science of Disney Imagineering volume delivers two main features through standard DVD playback -- a project and a quiz.

Titled "Try It Yourself", the projects are inspired by the disc's program but without retreading or repeating material. Each experiment consists of an instructional video hosted by Asa Kalama and a still page listing materials you'll need.

On Fluids (3:30), we learn how to turn over a large container of water without spilling it. A second experiment involves constructing a really big straw and then drinking from it. Less fun and more work, Design and Models' project (4:06) illustrates how to build a model bridge from straws. On Energy (4:25),
Asa shows us how to make an energy transfer conservatron, i.e. a Newton's cradle, with golf balls, thumb tacks, fishing line, and two chairs. He proceeds to explain the principles behind it.

"Test Your Knowledge" is the heading given to the quizzes, which refer to concepts covered in the feature program. Each quiz consists of 15 multiple-choice questions. They're hard enough to make sure you grasp the concept, but easy enough not to frustrate or confuse. Wrong answers cue the relevant clips from the show and a second chance to get it right, but they still count against your final score, which is displayed at the end. These fun challenges seem apt for classroom use as a follow-up exercise.

On the DVD-ROM side, the Imagineering discs include an Educator's Guide & Web Link. The former is a 6-page PDF document that gives an overview of the content and the academic standards addressed. It also suggests some post-viewing questions and activities and provides an answer key to the quiz. The link merely takes you to the DEP website.

Timon's disguise as a French waiter can be traced back to his confusion over the word "reserve." This moment is recalled in the Going Green! closing number, presented here in sing-along form. You won't need to ask "Who is UL?" after viewing this informative short on Safety Smart sponsor Underwriter Laboratories. This "Is It Safety Smart?" worksheet from the vast collection of DVD-ROM materials should get a good response from students. There's even a worksheet for that Italian kid who doesn't know English. It's one of fifteen foreign languages in which classroom materials are provided.

The Timon and Pumbaa discs each offer a Safety Smart sing-along for their closing songs. The one from Goes Green! (1:35) has the pals sing the praises of reducing, reusing, recycling, and other energy-conserving R words. In the Water! (1:26) dispenses tips to think of before you get wet. Lyrics can be printed out from the DVD-ROM materials (more on them in a second), but the bouncing ball and onscreen words make singing along far easier than that.

Both Timon and Pumbaa DVDs also supply "Who is UL?" (3:40), which answers that question with a brief, promotional history of Underwriters Laboratories and demonstrations of their product safety tests. The feature is offered in 8 different languages.

The most substantial supplemental inclusion on the Timon and Pumbaa discs are the DVD-ROM Educator's Guides. Customized to the disc, these exhaustive 20-21 page PDF files detail the program's objectives and provide everything you need for post-viewing discussions and classroom activities. Ranging from short answers and fill-in-the-blanks to a maze and a coloring page, the reproducible worksheets (11 on Green, 14 on Water) are also offered in 15 foreign languages, covering all your bases. Less important but present alongside the Adobe Reader documents are web links to the official UL and DEP sites.

The first of ten questions in Bill Nye's Safety Smart Quiz. Trust me, things heat up after this! For the phasing out of the word "fireman", we can credit women like battalion chief Jamie Hirsch, who speaks eloquently about "Fighting Fires." A hand with a pen brings to life an indoor/outdoor crossover point from Epcot's Test Track on the Science of Disney Imagineering: Energy DVD main menu.

The Bill Nye fire safety DVD supplies a 10-question quiz, which cues the appropriate clip even when your answer is correct. It's only easy because the effective program's lessons really stick with you.

The disc also holds the "Who is UL?" promo described above and the featurette "Fighting Fires" (7:23) which explains the training and duties of the profession with comments from those in the field. The Educator's Guide ranks somewhere in between the others. There's more to this 17-page PDF than the Imagineering ones, but the activities are less inspired and fun (which is perhaps true of most things as you go up the grade school scale).
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Still, there's an impressive collection of linked Internet resources and enough suggested activities and provided worksheets to fill the remainder of a class or serve as homework.

Finally, all six of the DVDs contains an "Also Available" section, holding one or two previews (ranging from 2 minutes to over 4) that show off the various titles available from Disney Educational Productions. Exhibiting restraint compared to the barrage of auto-play trailers on retail DVDs, these menu-accessible promos contain excerpts from various historical drama classroom editions and pay special attention to the newest releases.

MENUS and PACKAGING

All six of these DVDs are equipped with colorful, animated main menu screens. The ones on the Science of Disney Imagineering discs convey their program's concept with drawings of Disney park attractions (or models of them) coming to life. Timon and Pumbaa's modify the series' title logo with a montage in the center. Bill Nye merely changes the backdrop behind its host. There are even scene selection menus, something not always afforded Disney Movie Club exclusive discs.

The DVDs are housed in standard-sized white keepcases. No inserts are found inside, but there is full-color disc art.

Timon and Pumbaa learn there are a whole lot of rules to heed when safely going "In the Water!" For reading all those rules and this entire review, Bill Nye, Science Guy awards you one cupcake. Just don't forget to blow out the candle, you dope!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The DVDs from Disney Educational Productions deliver a far lower ratio of content-to-price than what standard retail releases do. But it's a different kind of value and for teachers, a far greater and more exciting one at that. Anyone itching to bring a bit of Disney to their students without reducing their class to movie time would be wise to consider picking up one of these DVDs and seeing the response it and all its provided activities receive. If you're not in education but are a diehard fan of the parks, Timon and Pumbaa, and Bill Nye, these discs are also worth at least thinking about, especially since the fun, informative content isn't likely to be made available anywhere else anytime soon.

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Related Reviews:
Modern Marvels: Walt Disney World • Walt Disney Treasures: Walt Disney On the Front Lines (featuring vintage Disney Educational Shorts)
Schoolhouse Rock!: Earth • Schoolhouse Rock!: Special 30th Anniversary Edition • Schoolhouse Rock!: Election Collection
Walt Disney Treasures: Disneyland - Secrets, Stories & Magic • The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Other Stories
Disney Learning Adventures: Winnie the Pooh - Wonderful Word Adventure • Boy Meets World: The Complete First Season
Imagination Movers: Warehouse Mouse Edition • Jack Frost (Deluxe Edition) • Walt Disney Treasures: Tomorrowland
New to DVD: Morning Light • The Jetsons: Season 2, Volume 1 • Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: Mickey's Big Splash

Related Interviews:
Dave Bossert, Disney effects animator and Director/Producer of the Timon and Pumbaa shorts
Tony Baxter, Walt Disney Imagineering's Senior Vice President

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Reviewed June 14, 2009.