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Under the Umbrella Tree on DVD: Volume 1 Volume 2 Volume 3

Under the Umbrella Tree: Volume 1 DVD Review

Buy Under the Umbrella Tree: Volume 1 from CinerioEntertainment.com Under the Umbrella Tree: Volume 1
Show Details
Director: Wayne Moss
Writers: Bob Stutt, Vivienne Laxdal, Ken Sobol, Mary MacKay-Smith, Kathy MacLellan
Regular Cast: Holly Larocque (Holly), Bob Stutt (Iggy), Stephen Brathwaite (Jacob), Noreen Young (Gloria)
Guest Star: Don Westwood (Uncle Jack Higgins, "Uncle Jack Comes Back")

DVD Details
Running Time: 77 Minutes (5 episodes) / Rating: Not Rated
1.33:1 Fullscreen, Dolby Digital Mono (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned
DVD Release Date: February 8, 2005
Episodes Originally Aired Between 1989 and 1990
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Available Exclusively through Cinerio Entertainment
Retail Price: $14.95 (Was: $19.95)
Black Keepcase


When the Disney Channel was originally launched in April of 1983, its programmers sought to balance the cable station's offerings from three different classes. A third of the Channel's programming would be existing Disney material -- films, shorts, television specials and movies which had been produced over the past six decades since Walt Disney had entertained the industry. Another third would be original content -- shows like "Welcome to Pooh Corner" and made-for-Disney Channel movies such as Tiger Town would provide never-before-seen material to attract viewers.
The final third of airspace was to be made up with material acquired from sources outside the Disney Company which, in the words of the channel's Vice President of Program Development Peggy Christianson, maintained "the Disney identity and values." This last class is where "Under the Umbrella Tree", a charming children's series imported from Canada, fits in.

"Under the Umbrella Tree" first appeared on the then-premium Disney Channel in 1986, more than ten years before anyone knew what a "zoog" was. Like some other pinnacles of family entertainment that '80s television gave birth to, the series starred puppets, as three of the four leading characters. The program is set in a house like any other, except that the inhabitants are anthropomorphic animals of unidentifiable age and origin. There is the sympathetic and sweet Gloria Gopher, the often nervous and somewhat absent-minded Jacob Blue Jay, and my personal favorite, Iggy Iguana, a sarcastic yellow-haired dude who is easy to like. Their friend is a human woman, the ever-thoughtful and maternal Holly Higgins (played by Holly Larocque). The gang's everyday adventures gracefully teach lessons that are easy for young viewers to identify with.

The "Under the Umbrella Tree" title logo as seen at the beginning of each episode. The cast photo as seen in the opening credits. Clockwise from top left: Holly, Jacob Blue Jay, Iggy Iguana, and Gloria Gopher.

Earlier this year (2005), the Ottawa-based distribution company Cinerio Entertainment brought "Under the Umbrella Tree" to DVD for the first time. This Volume 1 DVD released in February contains five 15-minute episodes from the late '80s and early '90s with brand new introductions from Gloria, Iggy, and Jacob! You won't find this DVD at your local Wal-Mart or Future Shop, though. It's available exclusively through Cinerio's website for the price of $19.95 $14.95 plus shipping. Future volumes are on the way, too. Volumes 2, 3, and 4 will be made available over the next nine weeks on the last week of the month. Like this one, they'll deliver about 75 minutes of content at the same price.

The five episodes presented on this Volume 1 disc are as follows:

"Birdbrain" (1989) (15:18)

Jacob is late for lunch and has put the ice cream back in the cupboard, which has Iggy questioning his friend's intelligence. To test the absent-minded bird, Iggy and Jacob square off for a quiz show called Brainwave, with Holly as over-the-top host and Gloria as the scorekeeper.

"Hamster Hullabaloo" (1990) (15:11)

Holly leaves Iggy, Jacob, and Gloria to look after Henry the hamster for a friend, but they can't resist opening his cage. Next thing you know, Henry's missing and Iggy, Jacob, and Gloria try to cover their tracks by severely stretching the truth.

Holly has fun as the (over)spirited host of Brainwave in the disc's first episode. Iggy and Jacob admire Gloria's trombone.

"The Trombone" (1990) (15:11)

Jacob and Iggy discover that Gloria has joined a marching band and learned to play the trombone. When she leaves them home with the instrument, they soon find themselves in a fix.

"The Best Hiding Place Ever" (1989) (15:10)

The gang is having fun playing hide-and-seek, but despite his best efforts to heed a friend's advice, Jacob's not very good at hiding. When Jacob finally does find a good spot to hide, neither Gloria nor the already-discovered Holly or Iggy can find him. Where can he be?!

"Uncle Jack Comes Back" (1989) (15:13)

Holly's Uncle Jack and Aunt Jill, a musical duo, are coming to visit for the weekend. They're scheduled to put on a show, but a snowstorm leaves Jill stranded at the airport. It's up to Holly to fill in for her aunt and sing with Jack, while Iggy, Gloria, and Jacob help out with behind-the-scenes work. We only get to see a rehearsal in the house, but it's quite a trippy act!

These episodes succeed, as do the others I have foggy memories of, in a number of ways. The show is very simple in its layout. The first episode included here feels staged like it could be a play and the others, while they aspire a bit more to using different sets, also favor relaxed pacing and minimal camerawork. It's the type of thing you might not notice if you're not looking for it (and children won't be), because fortunately, the characters and their stories triumph over any potentially stagnant technique.

The puppetry is first-rate; strings are visible from time-to-time, but the mouth movement always synchs up very well and you're entirely convinced that these are characters, rather than hand-operated creations. That is achieved in no small part due to voice performances from the talented cast. That cast doubles as a crew, as well; "Birdbrain" was written by Bob Stutt (the voice of Iggy) and Noreen Young (the voice of Gloria) produced the series. (Young is probably one of the biggest reasons the show has come to DVD; her self-titled production company appears throughout the disc and presumably, she approached local distributors Cinerio to make it happen.) Though her fashions and hairstyles date the show, Holly Larocque deserves credit for aptly playing the straight lady to her fuzzy co-stars.

Jacob is convinced he has found "The Best Hiding Place Ever", although he uses far more superlatives to describe it. A visit from Uncle Jack has the whole gang singing and wearing button-adorned black outfits.

As stated earlier, this DVD features brand new introductions by Iggy, Gloria, and Jacob who call this "The Best of 'Under the Umbrella Tree.'" Thankfully, they look and sound the same as they did all those years ago. Each episode opens with an amusing piece (roughly 20-30 seconds in length) in which the three protagonists setup the show to come. They're also transitional in the sense that they'll comment on the previous one which just ended. Each intro/transition dissolves into the original opening title sequence, which is preserved (as are closing episode credits) in full.
At the end of the fifth episode, Iggy, Jacob, and Gloria say goodbye and the theme song again plays, this time with the lyrics against a black screen, serving as a sing-along of sorts. As there are no subtitles or captions, this is the only time to find out any lyrics you might have been unsure of.

The new intro and original credits sequence can be skipped, but that's it, meaning each show offers just two chapter stops rather than more specific scene access. For shows this short, it's not a major deal.

It's unclear how many "Under the Umbrella Tree" episodes were produced during its run. The few sources I could find indicate there were well over two hundred shows made before production ended in 1993. That would mean for the complete series on DVD, Cinerio would have to release several dozen volumes, which would certainly rack up a hefty bill for collectors. As such, unless their release method changes, some selectivity might benefit fans on a budget.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Everything on the disc is presented in the 1.33:1 "fullscreen" aspect ratio. Those were naturally the dimensions the show was created and aired in, and which have been employed for the newly-filmed material. With episodes that are fifteen years old or older and an independent distributor and disc production approach taken, the video quality leaves you with wide-open-ended expectations of what kind presentation you'll get. Fortunately, I was quite pleased with the transfer quality.

The episodes themselves clearly look they come from old video masters, but they're pretty solid nonetheless. The element is satisfactorily clean, free from any intrusions whatsoever. Colors are quite vibrant, as they originally were. As you might expect from the dated source of a relatively low budget television production, the picture isn't the sharpest, but it remains appropriately detailed. Overall, it's many degrees better than the next-best alternative - teenaged homemade VHS recordings off the Disney Channel or elsewhere which degrade with each viewing.

Jacob, Iggy, and Gloria are back and your hosts to this Volume 1 DVD. Holly is the one most suited for holding Henry Hamster and the rest of the gang is awestruck by her hamster-holding skills.

(A side note, which is as relevant here as anywhere else, I suppose. There's a single frame appearance of Uncle Jack during Jacob's intro screen in the last episode's opening credits. One frame is not much of an intrusion, but it's somewhat scary if you can press pause at the right moment, or more likely, move through the frames to spot it! Eeek!)

Audio is provided in a Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack, which I imagine is the way the series originally aired. Somehow the show's sweet simplicity wouldn't feel right with a multi-channel presentation and the soundtrack here is certainly serviceable. Dialogue (the brunt of the track), the unforgettable theme song, and the occasional other musical selection are all delivered nicely, with consistent dynamics, accurate pitch, and little trouble discerning lines. Some of the lines are a bit muffled sounding, but I'm certain the fault lies with the original recordings rather than the transfer to disc.

With the fairly high average bitrate (in the 6.3-6.4 Mb/sec range) and apparent care that have gone into this DVD release, the video/audio presentation is not quite reference material or a remarkable revelation, but it is certainly praiseworthy, particularly for an independent studio.

The animated main menu cycles through a number of images seen from the disc's contents. The Episode Selection menu.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and DESIGN

Being released to DVD by an independent distributor has its drawbacks and they're often in the things we take for granted. Here, you may be disappointed to find no chapter insert, no subtitles, and no special features to speak of.
In addition, the non-negotiable price tag makes this more expensive than most comparable episode compilations from large studios. (Update: Since this review's initial publication, Cinerio lowered the price on all "Umbrella Tree" DVDs to a more reasonable $14.95 each, from $19.95.) Nonetheless, there's a large upside - a show long off the airwaves that many thought would never come to DVD has done just that!

The Main Menu is more than you might expect. It's surprisingly animated, cycling through a 30-second montage of blue-tinted clips from the show, set to the theme song (mixed at a substantially louder volume than the episodes' audio, unfortunately). There are only two listings: "Play All" and "Episode Select", underscoring the scarcity of options. The Episode Select screen presents a still and the title of each of the five shows presented on the disc, with no accompanying animation or music.

This Volume 1 DVD is thankfully packaged in a standard black keepcase like any other you're apt to have in your collection. There is no insert inside, but the episode titles are listed on the back of the case. Since I haven't made note of it anywhere else, let me point out that this DVD is region-free. It's not encoded just for North America the way most U.S. and Canadian DVDs are; as long as you can play NTSC format content, you'll be able to enjoy this disc anywhere 'round the world.

Holly is a bit baffled at why Jacob would return the ice cream to the cupboard. Silly blue jay! Do YOU ever wonder what could happen under, under the umbrella tree?

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Cinerio's five-episode Volume 1 compilation may not be the cheapest or most ideal way to revisit "Under the Umbrella Tree" on DVD, but there is no alternative. Fortunately, the disc achieves a fairly high level of quality and this fun series holds up remarkably well. Delivering more than an hour of solid episodes plus some spirited and much-appreciated newly-filmed introductions, the disc is wholeheartedly recommended for those with fond memories of the series. For those unfortunate enough to have not previously encountered the Umbrella Tree gang, you should be delighted to discover the show. It's technically sound family-oriented programming that simultaneously imparts values and entertains with its relatable self-contained stories. "Umbrella Tree" is preferable to most children's series on the air today and usually succeeds in winning adults over too with its simple but ample appeal.

Buy this DVD - Available only at CinerioEntertainment.com

OTHER ITEMS OFFERED BY CINERIO ENTERTAINMENT, INC.

Among the other DVDs that Cinerio currently offers are "animated picture books" ($9.95 each) which bring a number of children's stories to life using animation and "picturemation" from the original printed illustrations. Each of these discs provides both a "standard movie version" and a "read-along" version in which the viewer can follow the words on the screen and move through the pages like they would a real book. While the limited animation doesn't quite yield a feature cartoon presentation, it's certainly an interesting way to introduce children to reading. Those familiar with the read-alongs Disney used to often include will be accustomed to the format, and it is similar here, although longer, more elaborate and with more options via Cinerio.

The first three books adapted are Angela K. Narth's The Very Last Ladybug War, Simon with Two Left Feet, and Fergus, Prince of Frogs. Also recently released is Cockerel's Greatest Feeling of All written by Sylvia Helen Vincent, who like Ms. Narth and Ms. Young, calls Canada her home. These DVDs are also playable in all regions of the world. Cinerio will also be offering bundles with both the DVD version and the actual books, though these do not seem to be available yet on their website. The recurring theme of the fables offered seems to be animal (a goose, a frog, a cockerel) overcomes obstacle (clumsiness, homeliness, cockiness) to achieve great things, a popular lesson-instilling motif in children's literature at large.

For children who are a bit older, Cinerio now offers the two-CD audio book The Fossil Creature Mystery ($24.95), the first volume of a new chapter book series entitled The Large Adventures of the Incredible Smalls. This adventure is in the vein of the popular Magic Tree House line, offering suspense via airborne axes, education via insect eggs, and identifiable children and local figures for protagonists. The format calls to mind the old radio drama and with no print edition offered (though Amazon.com sells an e-Book), one wonders if the imaginative tale can prevent audience antsiness. You can check out Cinerio's entire catalog at CinerioEntertainment.com.

Under the Umbrella Tree on DVD: Volume 1 Volume 2 Volume 3

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Reviewed June 27, 2005 / Updated August 3, 2005.