Amazon kids’ TV pilot review: Table 58, Niko and the Sword of Light, Just Add Magic
James R | On 23, Jan 2015
We’ve written before on why kids are important to VOD companies and how Netflix and Amazon are vying to win them over, but while Netflix continues to focus on spin-off series from DreamWorks Animation, it’s to Amazon’s credit that they include children’s shows in their pilot system.
The site’s approach means that young viewers (without needing an Amazon account) can try out TV shows and have a direct say in what gets the green light for them to watch in the future – something that feels rare in the television world. Amazon’s diversity in content is impressive too, offering three pilots for pre-school watchers and another three for those aged six to 11. That division suggests that they know what works for each audience. Do they really?
From a comedy by the director of 10 Things I Hate About You to Great British Bake Off meets Sabrina the Teenage Witch, we put the Amazon 2015 kids’ TV pilots through their paces.
Niko and the Sword of Light
What immediately stands out about Amazon’s kids TV pilots is how original they seem. Niko and the Sword of Light is a shining example. Based on the motion graphic comic by Imaginism – the studio behind character designs for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland – it’s an adventure that follows the last remaining human in the world, as he ventures towards a giant volcano to rid the land of darkness. The Omega Man meets The Lord of the Rings? It sounds epic, but Rob Hoegee’s script treats the big events with an adorably small eye: every grand moment is undermined with a silly quip, while Tom Kenny’s vocals are enjoyably enthusiastic, as Niko gets caught up in his own role as the hero, despite never being able to exit the screen in the right direction. Titmouse’s animations are equally dazzling, taking in everything from from humungous toads and spooky woods to, erm, water slides, their almost cel-shaded edge is eye-catchingly unique. As enemies are vanquished, they shrink from their scary, monstrous form into tiny, harmless creatures, from salivating wolves to minute pebbles; at the heart of this sweeping story is the infectious excitement of a young boy playing in his own imagination.
Just Add Magic
Cupcakes! BFFs! Magic! This live-action show, based on Cindy Callaghan’s young adult book of the same name, sees three girls – Kelly, Darbie and Hannah – discover an old recipe book belonging to Kelly’s grandma. When a “Shut-Em-Up Shortcake” causes her brother to lose his voice, though, they realise it’s more Merlin than Mary Berry. The resulting mix could be all kinds of cringe, but writers Joanna Lewis and Kristine Songco (Fairly Odd Parents) beat the first episode’s ingredients together without trying too hard, while the young cast – Olivia Sanabia, Abby Donnelly and Aubrey Miller – resist ladling on the sugar.
So when a basketball try-out is folded into the action, the result is a sweet, but never sickly, tale of friendship, generosity and the dangers of enchanted culinary literature. Sprinkle in a suspicious neighbour and you have a charming little treat.
Where do you sit when you have your school dinner? It’s a question that defines who you are for kids of a certain age – and one that’s been a central concern for countless teen movies. So what is Table 58, which follows the group of pupils who have other option than sit on the reject cafeteria table, doing in Amazon’s pilots for six to 11 year olds?
The answer: being very funny.
Nathaniel Potvin plays Logan, the new kid who finds himself sitting with the assorted losers at noon. Desperate to get on the school sports team, you could be forgiven for dismissing him as a self-centred jock, but he turns out to be a nice guy; the very thing, in fact, that Table 58 needs to bring the group together. The rest of the likeable cast also manage to do something more than just rehash stereotypes, from the wannabe popular girl (Johnnie Ladd) and the stoner (Jacob Melton) to the token math nerd (a stand-out Juliana Rigolioso).
It helps that they have such a strong script from May Chan, which jumps from the post-modern (music is constantly being played by people in the background) to puns without pausing for recess. Support from an over-enthusiastic head teacher adds to the laughs, although the main ensemble get the best lines. “It seems that jealousy, unlike a compounding integer, has no limits,” philosophises Rigolioso with an impressively straight face.
The Breakfast Club but set at lunch? It’s only when the credits roll that you spot a familiar name: Gil Junger, the director of the similarly witty 10 Things I Hate About You, who tackles this younger fare with the same intelligence and winning immaturity. Taking teen movie smarts and a John Hughes-like premise and serving it up to youngsters, Table 58 is the best of Amazon’s new kids’ pilots by far. The kicker: adults will enjoy it too.
The Stinky & Dirty Show (for preschool-aged children)
When you come across a children’s book titled “I Stink!”, you know someone’s doing something right. This cute animation, based on the series by Kate and Jim McMullan, is brought to the screen by Guy Toubes – the guy behind Littlest Pet Shop. It follows Stinky the garbage truck and Dirty, a backhoe tower, as they struggle to move a gigantic boulder out of the road. “We could throw melons at it!” offers one, a suggestion that gets repeated over and over, as the subtle geometry lesson unfolds (via crashes, stupid mistakes and pretty, colouring book-like visuals). It always gets a smile.
Buddy: Tech Detective (for preschool-aged children)
“What do YOU see?” asks Buddy: Tech Detective halfway through his investigation into a mystery involving green goo. The show’s use of gizmos is an interesting move to acknowledge the technology-driven age kids are growing up in, but as they put binoculars up to the screen and ask their viewers to participate, you wonder if they forgot to turn off the Heavy-Handed switch on their generic smart phone. Learning is good and so is participation – and comedy ferret sidekicks are under-represented on modern television – but you can’t help but feel a pre-school child with a tablet would produce something far more natural than this straight-laced, formulaic pilot.
Sara Solves It (for preschool-aged children)
Sara is smart. She likes to solve mysteries. And she likes to sing. So when she and her friends go out for pizza and, during a power cut, several pieces go missing, they swiftly embark on an investigation around the whole restaurant, quizzing customers, dividing up the edible remains evenly between them, and belting out songs as they go.
From the creators of Arthur (Carol Greenwald) and Blue’s Clues (Angela C. Santomero), it’s perhaps no surprise that this flows so smoothly between fractions and foot-tapping showstoppers. Sara Solves It manages to find a fun answer to the mystery within 12 minutes, while still rhyming words like “doggy” and “soggy”. An animated detective musical with pizza? Another slice please.
All the Amazon original show pilots can be viewed here, by customers and non-customers alike.