Original Airdate: September 5th, 2006 on CITV
Tonight’s offering bears quite a bit of resemblance to an earlier installment in my efforts to sift through a vast sea of weird children’s programming. Like Paddington, Angelina Ballerina is based on a popular and long-running series of British children’s books about anthropomorphic animals (mice instead of bears.) Like Paddington, it’s inevitably found its way to the small screen, and like Paddington, it seems destined to go through multiple TV incarnations–Ballerina was rebooted in 2009 as Angelina Ballerina: The Next Steps. Like Paddington, its tentacles have begun to stretch beyond print and television, but instead of a feature film Ballerina was the inspiration for a 2007 English National Ballet tour, presumably in a thirsty effort to capitalize on even a shred of fleeting public interest in concert dance.
Unfortunately, Ballerina fucks up many of the things that Paddington did well.
- The bones of a good story. So the premise of this hour long special is that Angelina (Finty Williams) and her dance troupe have been invited to leave their home, a surrogate for 1920s England, and travel to surrogate Russia for a special dance performance. Almost all of the action takes place in transit, aboard the ocean liner Royal Stilton, which, heh. Taking your characters out of an established setting, putting them somewhere brand new, facing them with a new challenge in the form of a prestigious performance, taking them to a faroff land–these things are all ripe with potential. At several points along the line, Ballerina flirts with the elements of a solid story. There’s the threat of nautical disaster. Angelina is framed for a grave misdeed she did not commit. A character faces the risk of an unfair job loss. There’s nearly a confession of love. Does Ballerina take any of those opportunities? Well, of course not.
- Too long. The typical episode of Ballerina is 22 minutes, and these episodes are divided into 12 minute shorts. A big part of Paddington’s brilliance was its ability to get in and out in five. Even if you find the animation hideous and the characters annoying, chances are you can stomach five minutes for the sake of your tykes. I strongly suspect that Ballerina is much stronger in its 12 minute form, since the writers flounder desperately in telling a longer story. As I said above, it manages to meander past several things that could make for an interesting story–or really, any kind of coherent story at all–but instead we merely have a string of incidents. Let’s attempt a recap. Angelina’s beloved dance instructor Miss Lilly (Judi Dench, Philomena) has received an invitation for the dance troupe to travel to Lilly’s native Dacovia, which means a long sea journey. Miss Lilly’s nephew Yuri (Gary Martin*, Mr. Bean: The Animated Series) is the radio operator aboard the Stilton and is apparently having a star-crossed love affair with the captain’s (Martin) daughter. For unclear reasons, Angelina embarks on a crusade to convince the captain to approve of the relationship, and her wacky/contrived meddling leads to mildly amusing misadventure. Enter Ballerina’s recurring antagonists in the form of the bratty twins Penelope and Priscilla (Jonell Elliott.) They left their costumes back home and because they’re shitty little idiots they try to notify their family via the ship’s radio, which they proceed to break, because, again, they’re shitty little idiots. They plant a piece of jewelry that Angelina lost on the scene. She gets blamed but faces no real consequences; meanwhile, the ship “gets stuck” on an iceberg, which is not how ocean liner vs. iceberg encounters worked in the 1920s but no one cares because this is a show for four year olds and all the characters drowning might cause some nightmares and salty letters. Angelina saves the day by encouraging Yuri to engage in bastardized Russian dance, which involves a lot of stomping and dislodges the ship. The captain decides Yuri’s not so useless after all and the troupe safely makes it to Dacovia and performs there to much applause. The show is also padded out quite a bit to get it to the 45 minute mark. They could have used that time to sketch out something like a motivation for Angelina’s disruptive meddling, but no. At the very end of the show, a fellow dancer named William (Keith Wickham, Thomas and Friends) tells Angelina that he thinks dancing is the most wonderful thing in the world when he’s doing it with her. This comment is ripe with potential. Had he told her of his feelings at the top of the episode, the story would practically write itself. It would even provide Angelina with a plausible motive for getting all up in Yuri’s business–love is wonderful and nothing should come between two young lovers yada yada yada. It would be kind of dumb and cliched, but it would be better with the whole lot of nothing on offer here, especially considering this special marks the end of Ballerina’s run. What a great capstone it would put on the series to finally explore the simmering romantic tension between two leads! No, let’s waste a lot of time fucking around with a guest star on a boat, because the Ballerina writers are weary and the hour grows late.
- Henry. I’m shuddering just thinking about this. One of the members of the dance ensemble is Henry (Jo Wyatt, Dragon Age II), who is supposed to be a three year old, I guess. It seems like 42 of the show’s 45 minutes consists of him boring everyone around him senseless in a grating warble about nautical facts and his nautical-related aspirations. Is this supposed to be cute? It’s really not. It’s awful. When the characters on the show are visibly bored by the tiresome antics of one of the other characters, maybe consider giving us a little less of that character. PLEASE.
- One-note characterization. So I kind of get why the theoretically adorable toddler is fixated on boats and wants to talk about nothing else until everyone within earshot drives carpet tacks into their eyes so they can focus on the cleansing pain. That’s how toddlers are. They don’t care if you’re bored, they won’t shut up and will tell you everything they know about racoons. It occurs to me to note that the little boys and girls watching this show are probably also well aware of that as they have irritating younger siblings of their own, and instead of getting to escape from that unpleasant reality, here’s Ballerina shoving it in their faces. Anyway. Henry’s, like, three. What excuse does the rest of the cast have for having very few distinguishing characteristics? As mentioned, Angelina’s motives for stirring the gigantic pot of shit aboard the Stilton remain infuriatingly opaque. Miss Lilly is Dacovian and maternal. Angelina’s pal Alice (Wyatt) is obsessed with food. The twins are shitty little idiots. William provides us with an interminable series of “jokes” about his seasickness. Even the piano player for the dance troupe tags along on the cruise, and let’s see if you can guess her sole characteristic from her name: Miss Quaver.** It might be easier to spend 45 minutes watching the tepid antics of the mouselings if any of them were even slightly well-rounded characters, but if you wanted high-quality children’s programming you’d be watching a Pixar movie.
*At least, I think it’s Gary Martin. His credit on the IMDb page for this episode just reads “voice” and the credits for the episode don’t break the performers down by character. I invite any Ballerina superfans out there to go ahead and contact me so I can give the actors proper credit.
**There’s a similar dearth of info on Miss Quaver, but I feel confident in assuming she’s either Wyatt or Elliott. Judi Dench ain’t got time for that shit and Finty Williams is too busy getting her mom to help her make stupid pet projects involving cartoon mice.
Motivation: As mentioned, the show really struggles to find a plausible motivation for Angelina. I’ll suggest some. Survival, if at any point there was even the suggestion of danger raised by the iceberg crash and the possibility of dying of starvation on the pitiless sea. Love, if the show followed through on its feeble feint in the direction of shipping Angelina and William. Knowledge, if she’s super-excited to get to Dacovia and learn about Dacovian dance, and, hell, why not have the whole episode set in Dacovia? Nope? We’re still doing the boat thing, then? Okay. Why not friendship, wherein Angelina is motivated to help Yuri because of his relationship to her beloved tutor? The show vaguely gestures towards all of these but doesn’t settle on anything. So I’m going to go ahead and credit Angelina with introducing us to a whole new kind of motivation: getting to the end of the episode.
Final Episode Judgment: 2/10. If your kid is obsessed with ballet, mice, and/or the greatest hits of British pablum, fire away. You, however, may just want to go in the other room and wear earplugs. Especially when you see Henry. RUN
NEXT TIME: I review Brothers and Sisters. Is it the same show as Parenthood? Maybe!