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The cartoon classroom

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TV’s most moral ‘toons feature aardvarks and turtles and…gay crocodiles? Oh, my!

If you mention the name Arthur to adults, chances are they’ll picture the drunken millionaire Dudley Moore played in the movies. But mention it to kids, and they’ll immediately think of Arthur Read, the 8-year-old aardvark whose everyday adventures are chronicled in PBS’ top-rated cartoon, which recently won its second consecutive Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Animated Program.

Based on Marc Brown’s best-selling books, Arthur (PBS, check local listings) gent-ly teaches moral lessons without resorting to the cloying antics of a certain purple dinosaur. Arthur (nicely voiced by teenage actor Michael Yarmush) learns to get along with his parents, his little sisters (meddlesome D.W. and adorable baby Kate), and his classmates, including a bunny named Buster Baxter.

Arthur‘s only one of a large litter of animated mini-morality plays, including Nickelodeon’s Little Bear and Franklin and HBO Family’s George and Martha. Unlike your average Mighty Morphin Teenage Mutant Ninja Pokemons, these aren’t violent tales of interspecies battles but rather quiet accounts of down-to-earth events in children’s lives — taking care of a pet, losing a tooth, mastering the art of bike riding — seen through the eyes of cuddly, kid-friendly critters.

These series are so peaceful in nature because they’re adapted from bedtime stories, which aim to soothe wee ones, instead of from comic books or videogames, which are designed to excite them. Little Bear and George and Martha bear the prestigious literary imprimatur of exec producer Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), although the original volumes were written by Else Holmelund Minarik and James Marshall, respectively.

Franklin started out as a series of fables created by Paulette Bourgeois and Brenda Clark about a turtle’s family and friends. CBS initially aired the show (made by the Canadian company Nelvana, which also coproduces Little Bear and George and Martha), but the network dropped it after less than a season. Apparently Franklin‘s calming tone didn’t mesh well with such cartoons as Flying Rhino Junior High and Mythic Warriors: Guardians of the Legend. The Eye’s oversight turned out to be Nickelodeon’s good fortune; Franklin fits snugly in the ”Nick Jr.” preschool block alongside Blue’s Clues and Little Bear.

George and Martha currently airs exclusively on HBO Family, one of the net’s new ”multiplex” channels, but it deserves wider exposure. Nathan Lane (who gets more laughs here than he did in Encore! Encore!) and SCTV alum Andrea Martin provide the pipes for the titular hippos, platonic pals who share an interest in dance, film, and the theater. As befitting characters voiced by veterans of lavish Broadway musicals, George and Martha number among their friends Oscar (Whose Line Is It Anyway‘s Colin Mochrie) and Wilde (Sean Cullen), a same-sex couple of crocs who pronounce George’s taste in neckwear ”fabulous!” Note to Jerry Falwell: Tinky Winky’s not alone.

George and Martha‘s gay sensibility is topped off by a swinging jazz score. In fact, all of these ‘toons offer terrific ditties. Arthur‘s exuberant theme is by reggae scion Ziggy Marley, while Franklin opens with an eminently hummable number from left-wing Canadian folkie Bruce Cockburn. No wonder these animated ethics lessons are like music to liberal parents’ ears.

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