Ken Tucker
February 20, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Astro Boy

BOOHBAH (PBS, check local listings)

ASTRO BOY Saturdays, 8:30 a.m. (The WB)

The recent death of Bob Keeshan reminded lots of people that the power of what you watch on TV as a child extends beyond mere nostalgia. Keeshan’s character, Captain Kangaroo, like Fred Rogers’ Mister Rogers, implanted in millions of children a memory of warmth and comfort that is no small gift. The same is true, for another generation, of Sesame Street, and I’m serious when I say that many of us retain enormous, unironic affection for Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1986 — 91). Watching tapes of that show recently, I felt that creator Paul Reubens’ remarkable achievement — creating a series that worked simultaneously as sincere and camp pleasure — makes his scandal-marred career a genuine tragedy.

It’s difficult to say whether Boohbah, a new show created by British producer Anne Wood (the woman who birthed Teletubbies), will be remembered with similar affection. But I’m positive that Boohbah can be experienced by both its intended audience (kids ages 3 to 6) and its inevitable inadvertent audience (doting parents and stoners of every age) as a mind-blowing gas. Like Teletubbies, Boohbah’s principal characters are nonhuman — or rather, five actors encased in what look like furry, gumdrop-shaped costumes, from which protrude hairless skulls, electronically throbbing eyebrows, eyes, and a hint of nose.

As if this weren’t eerie enough, each is a different, glowing color (yellow, pink, blue, purple, orange) and has an otherworldly name: Humbah, Jingbah, Jumbah, Zumbah, and Zing Zing Zingbah. (Wondering why the latter possesses three names? That’s the least of this psychedelic stumper’s ceaseless stream of non sequiturs.) Creator Wood asserts that the Boohbahs, who jump and caper around in various environments — a green field, a sunny beach — are meant to inspire kids to get up and exercise a bit, and real children on screen stretch and move about occasionally. To the beat of Muzak-techno, the Boohbahs blob around spasmodically in sync, while children yell, ”Boohbah! Boohbah!” Clearly this is a cult in the making: Its roly-poly Jim Joneses are themselves Kool-Aid colored.

At the end of every episode, the Boohbahs morph together into a rainbow-hued globe, soar up into the air, and disappear, as though ascending to Jerry Garcia’s precinct in heaven. This plotless nirvana (a toddler’s dreamscape, a mushroom eater’s paradise) goes on for 30 minutes every weekday. Really, if the imported Boohbah catches on in America, it will spell the end of Bob Barker as daytime entertainment, because Boohbah has it all over The Price Is Right in terms of flashing lights, blinding colors, and silly noise, at undoubtedly lower production costs.

Meanwhile, in the cartoon division of children’s entertainment, the popularity of Japanese animation and manga comics has led to a wondrous revival on Kids’ WB! of Astro Boy, a 50-year-old character created by Osamu Tezuka. The first Astro Boy cartoons were imported here in the early ’60s; this new version was animated in Japan and dubbed into English, a process the press release pretentiously calls ”transcreation,” when what they actually mean is ”adapting for mass America.” If Boohbah is distinguished by an avoidance of narrative momentum, Astro Boy is stuffed to bursting with it. Briefly: In the future, Astro is a human-looking robot who flies on ”rocket feet” and has fingertip laser beams and, most important, ”kokoro,” which translates roughly as a soul. He was created by Dr. Tenma, who went mad and now skulks in the shadows of every episode, trying to regain control over Astro. But our wide-eyed little hero is under the charge of the kindly Dr. O’Shay, head of the Ministry of Science.

Astro Boy was Osamu Tezuka’s parable of threatened innocence. Astro wants to be part of the world but doesn’t know how the place works; he asks in the second episode, ”So tell me, what’s this whole ‘rules’ thing?” Each lushly animated, pastel-tinged adventure — far superior to most Saturday-morning cartoons, such as the hideous Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! (both Kids’ WB! hits) and ABC Family’s clamorous Digimon and Beyblade — finds Astro trying to pass as a normal little boy, only to have some danger compel him to reveal his powers, which inevitably sets him apart from everyone. He’s lovable but lonely, and the lurking Dr. Tenma registers to adult viewers as a creepy predator, waiting to snatch back a creation he considers his property. Like Boohbah, Astro prizes freedom — even the freedom just to be goofy — as the highest good.

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