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Disney Educational Productions DVDs Roundup - October 2009

The Science of Disney Imagineering • Disneynature • Bill Nye's Solving for X

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Disney's 2009 holiday season DVD slate is fairly typical: the new Pixar film, the new Tinker Bell movie, a talking animal flick, a couple of Treasures for collectors, some Disney Channel discs for the kiddies and tweens, and the timely repackaging.
There is, however, another dimension of offerings from within the company, one less promoted and less widely available but of greater professional interest to educators. In case the title and heading of this page didn't clue you in, I'm talking about the latest releases from Disney Educational Productions.

In this article, we look at eight classroom-ready DVDs recently issued by DEP. The subjects fall into three classes. A third wave adds to the popular Science of Disney Imagineering series, which reveals how scientific concepts covered in grades 5-8 power the many fun attractions of Disney's theme parks. The Disneynature banner, introduced to American moviegoers with some fanfare earlier this year, expands with a Classroom Edition of Earth and two shorter animal documentaries unavailable elsewhere. Finally, renowned "Science Guy" Bill Nye tackles algebra and pre-algebra in two discs launching the new line Bill Nye's Solving for X.

The title logo and motto for The Science of Disney Imagineering: Dream It! Do It! Bill Nye shows off some of the wonderful fractions existing between 0 and 1, like a piece of pumpkin pie, a bite of an apple, and change.

If this review poses your introduction to the world of DEP, there are a few things you should know. These DVDs don't directly compare to the ones you'll find in stores. With the exception of the full-length Earth, each of these titles has a feature presentation of less than 30 minutes, which makes them well under average capacity but therefore quite easy to fit into any class period with time for some discussion. Also, the DVDs' high list prices ($29.95-$49.95) factor in public performance rights for classroom use, something not included on general consumer DVDs. (Although two notable legal exemptions exist.)
 

The Science of Disney Imagineering: Newton's 3 Laws of Motion DVD cover
Newton's 3 Laws of Motion
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The Science of Disney Imagineering: Magnetism DVD cover
Magnetism

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The Science of Disney Imagineering: Animal Adaptations - Communication DVD cover
Animal Adaptations: Communication
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The Science of Disney Imagineering

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

Release Date: September 16, 2009

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

Host: Asa Kalama


The number of volumes in The Science of Disney Imagineering, a line launched October 2008, rises to nine with this third wave of three DVDs. There is no sign of the series running out of steam or out of park attractions with which to illustrate scientific properties of interest to upper grade school students.

As always, these latest discs are hosted by Asa Kalama, a research & development Imagineer who excels at keeping viewers amused and informed. Never for a second does one question his enthusiasm for Disney theme parks and science, two things we learn go quite hand in hand. Disregarding the 2,500 miles between them, Kalama bounces back and forth between the various sites of Orlando's Walt Disney World and Anaheim's Disneyland to find common ground on a single scientific topic. Running roughly 30 minutes a piece, each program delivers an appropriate amount of information at a sensible rate, never feeling redundant or padded.

Asa Kalama explains why Newton's laws enable this 14-ton Kugel ball to move in the hands of enthusiastic intern Newton (Scott Nery). Asa tests the power of electromagnetism at the Astro Orbitor exit gate.

In Newton's 3 Laws of Motion (28:57), Asa makes use of Newton's laws as well as enthusiastic intern Newton (juggler Scott Nery) to explain how a single person can make Tomorrowland's 14-ton Kugel ball move. The principles of force, acceleration and inertia are then applied to the Golden Zephyr ride in California Adventure,
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DisneyQuest's Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters bumper cars, and roller coaster California Screamin'. The program opens and closes at Disney World's 400-foot Crush 'n' Gusher water slides.

Magnetism (24:38) spends quite a bit of time in Asa's lab, where he explains the properties of magnets and atoms, and how Earth's geographic North and South Pole differ from its magnetic poles. The power of electromagnets is demonstrated with a close look at the energy-efficient ones used to control the exit gates of Astro Orbitor. Then, we head over to Disney World's Rock 'n' Roller Coaster to learn the role magnets play in that thrill ride, specifically its 2.8-second 0-60 MPH launch. Asa ends where he started, amidst the Pirates of the Caribbean, where an Imagineer shows us how electromagnets feature in the ride's soundtracks.

Animal Adaptations: Communication (29:16) is the least Disney-flavored of the series' volumes that I've encountered, which makes sense since it's primarily set at the company's least Disneyish American park, Animal Kingdom. Physical adaptation is illustrated with animation depicting how a shorter-necked species of giraffes might have become extinct due to eating challenges. Animation of the opossum's dead-playing defense mechanism demonstrates a behavioral adaptation. Real elephants, hissing cockroaches, and dolphins are seen and heard as their auditory communication methods are described. Other types of communication are demonstrated by birds and porcupines (visual) and naked mole rats (their colonies' scent identification processes). Also observed and discussed here: giant millipedes, communicative meerkats, and loud siamangs.

Dolphins perk up and listen at the glass as Asa Kalama and Wendi Fellner talk about their communication methods. Animation illustrates how the giraffe's long neck could be a physical adaptation. After all, that little guy has quite a jump to get some grub.

From what I've seen, The Science of Disney Imagineering seems and deserves to be DEP's flagship series. These DVDs are smartly produced and sure to help lessons sink in for those opposed to dry teaching methods. The programs opt for a markedly different approach, with a fast style, a funny yet genuine host, and the luster of two of this nation's top vacation destinations. Perhaps inevitably, these shows paint Disney's parks in a warm light and it's no mere coincidence that watching them stokes the urge to take a Disney trip. But admirably the intentions seem to be genuinely educational and they are more than satisfactorily achieved. Although these programs are aimed at students in grades 5 to 8, viewers of all ages should find them entertaining and informative.

Star Rating: out of 5
 

Disneynature Earth: Classroom Edition DVD cover
Earth
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Disneynature Classroom Edition DVDs

Grade Level: 3-9

Price: $49.95 each

Release Date: August 31, 2009
Disneynature Migration: Classroom Edition DVD cover
Migration
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Disneynature Predator and Prey: Classroom Edition DVD cover
Predator and Prey
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Writer: Julie Callanan


Given a wider release and stronger promotional push than most nature documentaries, Earth did some pretty solid box office business for Disney this past spring. This 90-minute film is largely composed of high-definition footage that co-directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield used on the award-winning 11-episode series "Planet Earth", which aired a few years back on BBC and Discovery Channel.

A cheetah approaches a herd of gazelle with interest in the Disneynature documentary "Earth." A hungry polar bear tries to avoid walrus tusks in an effort to quench his appetite in "Earth."

This beautifully-photographed feature purports to capture a year of animal life in exotic unpeopled regions. Much time is spent with three families as they make great journeys: two young polar bears and their mother, a mother and calf humpback whale, and a mother and child elephant. The drama is relayed in a fashion similar to March of the Penguins (the only nature doc to earn more in standard theaters).

Narrator James Earl Jones brings both gravitas and levity to his descriptions of the images. Time-lapse and ultra-slow-motion effects heighten the majesty of sequences. And though this is Disney and G-rated, harsher aspects of the wild are not ignored. Bloodless attacks by a wolf, a cheetah, a shark, and a pack of lions no doubt rank among the film's most haunting and memorable scenes.

Star Rating: ½ out of 5

While Earth is as consumable as any recent wildlife documentary, its two Disneynature offshoots are available only in these DEP Classroom Editions. As their titles suggest, Migration and Predator and Prey deal with two of Earth's most pronounced themes. To say that they expand upon those topics may be overstating things, because these two short films actually make use of scenes from Earth and fellow Disney-BBC import Deep Blue in addition to sampling stock nature footage.

Orange and black butterflies take to the skies in the environmentally minded conclusion to Disneynature's "Migration." A Marabou stork sizes up this flamingo and many more near the end of "Predator and Prey."

Migration (22:40) looks at a number of animal species with consideration of their seasonal migratory urges. Dealt with at greatest length are red rainforest crabs, a matriarch elephant, humpback whales, and albatrosses. The motivations and navigations of each species' journey are briefly considered, although none of Earth's characterization efforts are recreated here.
The piece ends with information on butterflies that have become endangered because people don't want to plant weeds. Judging from the soft, grainy look Migration often has, much of its material appears to be stock footage.

Predator and Prey (25:18) doesn't suffer from as many visual shortcomings, but it does carry a sense of déjà vu because much of it is recognized as being recycled from Earth (and potentially re-recycled from "Planet Earth"). Its stretches on a wolf hunting caribou calves and a cheetah targeting gazelles are pure retread. To them, it adds bits on a polar bear fishing and, more interestingly, segments on prey defense mechanisms like camouflaged sea creatures and fish creating bait balls to deter sharks. Its closing act, featuring a Marabou stork preying upon helpless flamingos, sustains interest. One suspects it's from upcoming Disneynature film The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, as both it and 2011's Hidden Beauty are credited.

Unlike Earth, the narration on these short documentaries is less than incidental. Delivered by High School Musical's Lucas Grabeel, the full voiceover does as much as or more than the images, which don't single-handedly captivate. Compared to the other DEP DVDs, there is a disconnect on these volumes. They have some vague animal observations to share, but they're also dull and boring for being as short as they are. Furthermore, they carry the same high price tag as Earth and other more satisfying Disney classroom DVDs, making them far less than attractive.

Star Rating: out of 5
 

Bill Nye's Solving for X: Pre-Algebra, Volume 1 DVD cover
Pre-Algebra, Volume 1:
Infinite Fractions, Exponents, Signed Numbers & Proportional Reasoning
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Bill Nye's Solving for X

Grade Level: 6 and up

Price: $29.95 each

Release Date: September 16, 2009
Bill Nye's Solving for X: Algebra I, Volume 1 DVD cover
Algebra I, Volume 1:
Variables, Balancing Equations, Dimensional Analysis & Linear Equations
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Mid-'90s TV show host and leading Disney Educational Productions star Bill Nye moves from his trademark field of science to mathematics for this series. Each of the first two volumes of Bill Nye's Solving for X consists of four shorts running about 5 minutes in length. Nye uses a scenario to convey an algebraic concept in a memorable and entertaining fashion.

In Pre-Algebra, Volume 1 (19:57), he explains how the infinite fractions between 0 and 1 can help reduce a waffle recipe to feed two people. Nye uses a chain text message to illustrate the concept of exponential growth. An airport runway serves to physically represent the line of positive and negative numbers, explaining how to operate with both. Then, it's off to Hollywood, where Nye compares a scale model of the famous Hollywood sign to the genuine article to teach proportions.

The concept of exponentiality would have been better illustrated had Bill Nye adopted more than five culture-skewing personas. Bill Nye discovers negative numbers on the other side of zero in this airport runway segment from Pre-Algebra, Volume 1.

Algebra I, Volume 1 (17:26) opens with Nye playing an A.I. (Algebra Investigator) in a segment that pays tribute to classic noir films. A lady Y hires the detective to find X, something he figures out with an algebraic equation. Buying cupcakes for his niece and nephew, Nye uses another equation to determine how many cupcakes are inside each box. By a speed limit sign, he calculates how long it will take for him to drive to his grandmother's place going 30 MPH. Finally, he and two friends have the speed with which they roll their bowling balls plotted into a graph.

Maybe it's just because math has always come easier to me than science, but it seems like the lessons covered here are below Nye's expertise. Pre-Algebra's topics are especially easy to grasp. Algebra I's concepts require more thought, but I wasn't entirely satisfied with the methods Nye uses, particularly how he cancels things out of the formulas without clearly explaining why.

Algebra I goes black and white for old-timey A.I. Bill Nye to use math to solve the case of the missing variable. Bill Nye and bowling buddies Gunther and Jessica look at the graph which measures the speed of their rolls.

On the plus side, the shorts are well-produced with premises and visuals designed to really make the ideas sink in. On the other hand, they're very short, some running just over 3 minutes and that includes the theme song that plays before each one. Assuming you're teaching just one of these concepts at a time, the relevant segment is a bit slight to take the time and tools to set up and access.

As an educator, Nye carries a confidence and directness that makes him easy to listen to and understand. As an entertainer, he is hilarious. But, though a number of moments made me laugh, I think the bow-tied Nye here aims a little young for DVDs meant to be used in Grades 6 and up. That demographic is of the age where silliness and clean fun is scoffed at. Nye's song "Exponentiality" and broad theoretical humor will be appreciated by viewers younger and older than the targeted group. From those actually learning this material, though, it could just merit ridicule, which would definitely undercut its effectiveness. As concerning as that is how little ground is covered per purchase. The short comedic sketch format has appeal and is aptly utilized, but with just 15-20 minutes of content a DVD, a math teacher must have specific needs directly correlating to the lessons to really make this worthwhile.

Star Rating: out of 5
 

Graphics identify the magnetic elements at work on Disney Studios' Rock 'n' Roller Coaster's speedy launch. Waterfalls produce a pretty rainbow in Disney's "Earth."

VIDEO and AUDIO

All of the feature presentations appear in 1.78:1 widescreen enhanced for 16:9 displays. (The Science of Disney Imagineering programs are also offered in 1.33:1 fullscreen versions.) The picture quality varies depending on the source. The newly-produced Imagineering and Bill Nye programs are clean and vibrant, if slightly soft. Earth looks terrific, especially if you can forgive its infrared-shot nighttime scene. Its Disneynature brethren is less easy on the eyes, particularly the stock footage-sampling Migration.

On all but Earth (which delivers a tactfully active Dolby 5.1 surround experience), audio is provided only in two-channel stereo. That seems short-sighted attached to a 16:9 picture, but appropriate when one considers how few classrooms are probably equipped for full 5.1 sound. The Bill Nye openings are mixed louder than the lessons, but that's about the only woe encountered. Closed captioning is offered, subtitles are not (again, except for Earth, which includes dubs and subs in French and Latin American Spanish). One exception is that the Bill Nye DVDs come with a subtitle track to perform metric conversions. It only worked on one of them, not that the feature is particularly needed here.

EDUCATIONAL FEATURES

Every one of these eight DVDs comes equipped with a modest standard of extra features.

As appealing as this homemade recycled paper looks, I think I'll stick with the store-bought kind. A fundamental rule of magnetism is one of 15 questions that "Test Your Knowledge" on that DVD. We get a look at some of the food preparation that goes on at Animal Kingdom in the "Earth" Classroom Edition featurette "Diet and Nutrition." Mmmm... herbivore gel!

On The Science of Disney Imagineering DVDs, there is hands-on fun to be had in "Try It Yourself" experiments. There are static materials lists, although few are needed for these simple projects. The activity, which logically pertains to the DVD's subject matter, is then demonstrated by host Asa Kalama in a 1-3-minute video. Three such fun experiments included on Newton's 3 Laws offer to prove the laws with eggs and balls. By comparison, Magnetism pales with an elaborate magnetic art exercise. Animal Adaptations offers an over 6-minute guide to making recycled paper.
Despite the environmental tips that precede it, the complicated process -- which requires lots of newspaper, disposable used papers, warm water, a blender, and a self-constructed "deckle" -- certainly illustrates why people still buy clean reams from a store.

Set-top quizzes are included on the Imagineering (15 questions) and short Disneynature (10 questions) DVDs. They're a good way to test both viewing comprehension and the program's educational effectiveness. With just two to three choices, the questions definitely aren't too hard. But, answering any of them incorrectly prompts the relevant excerpt from the program to play. Though the quiz-taker is given a chance to correct their mistake, it still counts against the final score.

The Disneynature DVDs contain related featurettes, which illuminate us and pat Disney on the back for its Animal Kingdom practices. On Migration, "Sea Turtle Migration" (7:16) tells us about the species' fascinating birthing process and how the park catalogs and protects beach nestings. Predator and Prey's "Up Close with Predator and Prey" (7:44) discusses how the park strives to create habitats resembling both of those classes' natural environments.

Earth is accompanied by two featurettes, which replace the 42½-minute making-of documentary of its retail release. "Animal Diet and Nutrition" (5:55) details how the Animal Kingdom staff prepares fresh food each day to meet the needs of every one of the park's exhibited species. "Conservation in Action" (7:10) puts the spotlight on more Disney magnanimity, from the park's on-site preventive medicine at Animal Kingdom to the funds and animals helping situations abroad.

More fun than it sounds but less fun than it could be, the Interactive Whiteboard Application is a Flash-based game included on the Bill Nye's Solving for X DVDs. Each Disney Educational Productions DVD comes equipped with a DVD-ROM Educator's Guide. Each DVD-ROM Educator's Guide comes with a chart like so detailing the academic standards addressed. As on Earth's DVD, we get an outer space look at the sun's movement near the Earth on the main menu for Disneynature: Predator and Prey.

The remaining bonuses are found on DVD-ROM. In the case of Solving for X DVDs, that's all of them. Each of those includes something called an "Interactive Whiteboard Application." It's an installable Flash trivia game centering and expanding upon the program's topics. One or two can play, although the latter is limited since a mouse has to be shared. The virtual scratch paper with which to "Work It Out" is unpractical (why use a real pencil when you can move the mouse to sort of resemble that?). Still, there's fun, over 100 Bill Nye sound bites, and more than one game's worth of questions to be had. (Even if an erroneous question will frustrate those who get it.)

One DVD-ROM feature common to all eight of these DEP DVDs is an Educator's Guide, a 5-8 page Adobe PDF file with synopses, objectives, addressed standards, suggested classroom activities and discussion topics, and a list of resources. The documents on the Imagineering and Disneynature volumes are slim but serviceable. The Bill Nye ones do better by offering specific tips for teaching the concepts covered.

Each DVD also includes one or two 3-minute "Also available" promos, which only play when selected and do a good job of excerpting DEP's most recent releases.

MENUS and PACKAGING

The standard-sized white keepcases used for these DVDs may seem wasteful (especially on the environmentally-minded ones) for how lean these discs are. No inserts are found inside, but the discs do deliver full-color label art, something Disney and other studios have moved away from in recent times.

Like nearly everything else on these DVDs, the animated menus are 16:9-enhanced. The Disney Imagineering DVDs again provide a fun montage melding attraction videos with pencil design drawings. The Disneynature platters recycle Earth's menu design, minus the top portion. The Bill Nye discs subtly move equations along a three-dimensional piece of graph paper.

With a speaker and a laptop, Imagineer Steve Kadar shows Asa how magnetism produces sound on the Pirates of the Caribbean. Bill Nye stands between the famed Hollywood sign and a scale model of it in a Pre-Algebra segment teaching proportions.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The latest DVDs from Disney Educational Productions offer ways to spice up grade school science and math classes with entertaining video.

Of the three series reviewed here, Science of Disney Imagineering provides the most satisfying and substantial presentation. With nine topics now covered in that line, it should be easy for any interested science teacher to pick one most relevant to the curriculum and see how it's received. Those more drawn to earth sciences may be disappointed by the Disneynature titles. Earth is a bit long for a full class viewing and its standard retail edition might suffice, while Migration and Predator and Prey are too thin and humdrum to pay much mind. Finally, Bill Nye's new series of mathematical shorts may resonate for some of those who need them, but may be deemed too brief and silly to invest in.

On the whole, with discs only using one quarter to one half of a single-sided DVD's capacity, it seems like a good idea for the division to either amp up content per release or bundle programs at a discount.

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Related Reviews:
Disney Educational Productions (June 2009) - The Science of Disney Imagineering; Timon and Pumbaa; Safety Smart Science with Bill Nye the Science Guy
New: Peanuts 1970's Collection, Vol. 1 • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Diamond Edition Blu-ray) • Little Einsteins: Rocket's Blastoff
Earth (Blu-ray/DVD) • Deep Blue • Sacred Planet • Aliens of the Deep • Ghosts of the Abyss • Roving Mars • Charlie the Lonesome Cougar
True-Life Adventures: V1 - Wonders of the World • V2 - Lands of Exploration • V3 - Creatures of the Wild • V4 - Nature's Mysteries
Modern Marvels: Walt Disney World • Disney Learning Adventures: Mickey and the Beanstalk • Walt Disney Treasures: Tomorrowland

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Reviewed October 23, 2009.