Videotaped stories for kids -- A graded list of classic tales told by Robin Williams, James Earl Jones, and other stars

Videotaped stories for kids

Parents who fondly recall being read to when they were young have a right to be skeptical of videotaped storytelling. They know something magical takes place when a grown-up reads to a child, something that can’t happen while that child stares silently, alone, at a TV screen. When Mom and Dad have no available lap time, however, taped stories offer a good alternative — and may even inspire reading. Don’t let your kids watch the tapes too often, though: They’ll start asking why you don’t sound as impressive as James Earl Jones or can’t come up with as many voices as Jonathan Winters. Here is a sampling of some tales on tape

Pecos Bill
The legend of the cowboy who put the wild in Wild West lets Robin Williams show off both his vocal range and his turbocharged delivery. He invents delightful voices not only for the narrator and Bill, but also for Slue-Foot Sue, a two-con cougar, a couple of cowpokes, and Widow-Maker (Bill’s noble steed). Ry Cooder’s charming music blends seamlessly with Tim Raglin’s whimsical illustrations. The result is?well?hoo, boy! A

Noah’s Ark
Narrator James Earl Jones’ commanding voice heightens the drama of this familiar biblical tale. The animation’s almost as effective, although the simple minded rendering of Noah is, like much of the story’s setting, all wet. B+

Paul Bunyan
”Shoot, 99.9 percent of ’em wasn’t even there. I was, by jimmy,” Jonathan Winters says by way of introducing himself as the reader. Listeners will find it hard not to believe him, so skillfully does he give voice to Paul’s old logging companion. Creative camera work enhances Rick Meyerowitz’s fanciful sketches — and shows how much better expect drawings are than mediocre animation. Visual jokes abound: Theodore Roosevelt keeps a Teddy bear in his pocket; a sign outside a woods reads, ”Welcome to the Dakotas, Now Please Go Home.” The playful music is sweeter than a stack of flapjacks from Hot Biscuit Sally. A

Briar Rose, Rapunzel, Old Sultan
Brother, this is Grimm. Jack Harper sits before a stark backdrop of what is supposed to pass for a forest. He reads while cradling a storybook in his left hand and delivering klutzy gestures with his right. That’s it. No music. No pictures. Hardly any eye contact. The camera angle seldom changes, although periodically we get a closeup. You might as well watch a home video of you Uncle Fred reading a book aloud. Better yet, have him send you an audio-cassette. If you’ve forgotten what early public television was like, this tape’s for you. D

Captain Kangaroo: Takes of Magic and Mystery
So this is what the Captain does in the afternoon! He and Mr. Greenjeans plus other regulars from the cast of the popular long-running series appear in a collection of lighthearted stories. Each tale has a moral, but it’s never heavy-handed. Adults who watch with their kids will appreciate the wordplay. In ”The Magic Banana” there’s a reference to a genie with the light brown hair, and in ”Sam Charade” the Captain (Bob Keeshan) meets up with Sydney Mainstreet, who’s after the Maltese?duck. A

Baby’s Storytime
Although it’s a long way from ”Alice’s Restaurant” to the kitchen that gave birth to ”The Gingerbread Man,” Arlo Guthrie seems refreshed by the trip. He provides both enchanting music and convincing voices in 11 familiar tales (”The Three Little Pigs,” ”Henny Penny,” etc.), all told in a straightforward style. The animation is simple yet affecting. Guthrie’s evil characters sound tough, but one suspects not even his three billy goats would find them gruff. A