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Bear in the Big Blue House is a children's programme that was produced by the Jim Henson Company for Disney and later was bought outright by Disney. The main run of the show lasted from 1997 until 2003, with a few more episodes released in 2006 and 2007 for a total of 119. It generated one spin-off called Breakfast with Bear, also on The Disney Channel. With the Disney clout and the Henson name, the show made it onto television in most of the English-speaking world.

Bear is a large, very friendly orange-brown bear who lives (imagine!) in a big, blue house that looks vaguely Midwestern in style. The show involves Bear and the rest of the cast going about their daily activities with a song and a dance every now and then. The other characters seem to be free to roam the house despite it being Bear's and for the most part don't seem to have a home of their own. They include, apart from Bear himself:

  • Ojo, a bear cub of about five years human-equivalent age
  • Treelo, a fuzzy, green and blue striped lemur with the cognitive ability and disposition of a three-year-old
  • Pip and Pop, a pair of purple otters from the nearby otter pond
  • Shadow, a shadow on the wall who presents shadow theatre sketches
  • Tutter, a blue mouse who lives behind a hole in the kitchen skirting board

Now, most of these folks are muppets. This is, after all, a Henson production. I'm disappointed by the quality of the characters, though. The muppets are hardly what one would expect from the people who came up with The Muppets Take Manhattan. The otters and the mouse are little more than hand puppets. Ojo is kinda of creepy. She looks like your average teddy bear, except permanently expressionless. And Treelo, while constructed a bit better, is simply too fluffy and colourful for my taste. Bear, on the other hand, and this is a huge inconsistency, is a muppeteering marvel. He's a six-foot, shaggy bear with an expressive face revolving around his mouth and eyebrows, excellent movement, including elegant dance moves and confident motion even when going down stairs, and great arm gestures. It's a shame for him to have such a poor supporting cast.

If the muppets disappointed me once, the characters did so even more. I find all of the supporting characters to be rather shallow and poorly developed. Sesame Street this is not. Perhaps the most telling part is the resemblance of Treelo the lemur to Elmo. Like everyone who grew up with Sesame Street B.E. (Before Elmo), Elmo's stupid, red cuteness does about as much for me as Nermal does for Garfield. The kids try to tell me that "he's only three" but I heartily dislike the self-centered, stripey little moron. Pip and Pop, the otters, are ADHD poster boys. Though entertaining to some extent, they merrily and loudly barge in and out of everywhere with no consequences and are rarely encouraged to show any manners or responsibiilty. Tutter the mouse is probably my least favourite of them all. This rodent needs to be on drugs. Apart from not being very bright--come on, a two-year old can learn to push a rectangular box through an opening by changing its orientation--this creature is more wound up than Miss Piggy on crack and is probably the single most neurotic thing I've ever seen on children's television. Ojo the cub would be the most palatable of the bunch if her button-eyes didn't make her look like she has no personality at all.

This is not to say that the show doesn't have its good sides. Shadow is summoned once every episode, usually appearing on the hallway wall, and presents a corny piece of shadow theatre with a hint of adult humour that more often than not leaves me shaking my head. Luna, the silver moon who shows up at the end of the episode to sing the goodbye song with Bear, is an impeccably wise and calming presence. Some of the more infrequent guests are better muppets than most of the cast.

The storylines and lessons are far better than the characters, and this where the show is strongest. Bear is at least as educational as it is entertaining. It presents simple everyday problems in simple, understandable terms. Bear's character allows mistakes to be made and intervenes by helping the other characters solve their problems rather than doing things himself. And he always does it with the sort of smiling understanding and patience that real life doesn't give real parents--or at least doesn't give this one.

Bear is widely available on VHS and DVD. Both formats are also very easy to find on the used market. You can build up a pretty decent VHS library for a modest investment by spending a few mornings at yard sales. It's helpful that the collections, either the two-episode VHS ones or the three-episode DVD releases, tend to follow themes rather than stick to the chronological order of release. This way it's easy to use the same disc for a week on a subject that's of special interest for that week.

For the 18-month and over crowd, I'll recommend Bear despite it not being at the top of my list. Its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. The problems that I have with it are more about style than about substance. Of course your mileage may vary and you might love it as much as the kids do.

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