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Tucson Weekly Our Purple Friend

Barney scores big with the under-four set.

By Stacey Richter

APRIL 13, 1998:  SOMETIMES I GET tired of it. Maybe it's the rigorous viewing schedule the demanding position of Tucson Weekly Film Reviewer requires, or maybe it's those popcorn bags that say Grease on the side, but lately I drag myself to the multiplex with waning enthusiasm. Sometimes I worry that I've become immune to movie magic. I read blurbs by other reviewers, and they sound so damn overjoyed. "I stood up and cheered!" they claim, "I was singing the songs on my way out!!!" etc. I, meanwhile, compose my own versions of fawning reviews: "I didn't fall asleep!" for example, or "I was dreading it, but found myself mildly entertained!!!"

Imagine, then, the refreshing surprise that greeted me when I went to see Barney's Great Adventure. The moment I walked into the theater, I knew something was different. I found myself faced with an array of toddlers, pre-schoolers, and babies--diminutive humans who were actually excited about seeing a movie. Not just a little pumped, but jump-up-and-down excited! These kids were primed. They wore Barney T-shirts and sailor caps. They clutched stuffed Barneys in their arms. They squirmed in their seats and whined that it was taking forever for it to start.

Barney, in case you don't know, is a big purple dinosaur who is not animated--think of a guy in a dinosaur suit, okay? He's a friend of the imagination, and has come to earth for two reasons: To lead children in sing-a-longs, and to hug. Like Christ, Barney believes unabashedly in non-erotic love, and he spreads this dogma through what many adults hold to be an insipid and annoying little ditty that goes: I love you, you love me, we're a happy family.

Barney's television show is wildly popular among the trendy 5-and-under set, and Barney's Great Adventure is the first feature film starring "our purple friend," as he's sometimes known. With Barney's Great Adventure, Barney cements his long-standing, complicated reputation: He's widely loved by little children, but hated by their adult handlers. He deserves both. Personally, I found the film punishingly boring, but the kids in the audience went wild for it. It was like a rock concert. They ran up and down the aisles, stood up during scenes, sang along during their favorite songs, and screamed at the screen. Certain images prompted them to shout bits of language I can only assume they'd acquired recently; words like "Barney!" "Baby Bop!" or simply "duck."

Going to see the Barney's Great Adventure, unescorted by child, is a not unlike worming your way into the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese. It seems like a kooky idea, but once you're the only adult crammed in a giant Habitrail with all those unhygenic plastic balls, and those unhygenic kiddies, you start to think: No. I had this feeling when, at the beginning of the movie, I couldn't help but notice that all the characters were speaking extremely slowly, though the ideas they wished to convey weren't that complex. You see, several children are being dropped off at their grandparents' farm for a week. Cody, a little boy, anticipates that this experience will be uncool. He's a partisan of cool things like "rock singers who spit fire," and "professional wrestlers." His little sister Abby and her friend Marcella, however, are gung-ho about the prospect of a week in the country.

Once they get to the farm, Cody steals Abby's Barney doll and hides it in the shower, where it grows to giant proportions like one of those sponge things you put in a glass of water. Are you with me? Then this weird giant egg falls out of the sky, and Barney and the kids chase it through an acid-trip version of small-town America, a land peopled by circus performers and the kinds of adults who frequently sing. Though the toddlers in the audience seemed satisfied with the musical numbers, as a critic I feel obligated to point out that the songs have none of the charm of many classic or even mediocre kids movies. This is no Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. One of the original songs rhymes "piles and piles of books" with "we're no pile of schnooks." Eventually, Barney just gives up and croons a few nursery standards, like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

As seems appropriate in a movie for little tikes, there's not much tension in Barney's Great Adventure, and I dare say a few among us in the audience felt the adventure was merely good, or just adequate. The toddlers, however, clapped and bounced with wonder at the climax of the film, when Barney at last sings his hit, "The Barney Song" (I love you...etc.). Perhaps, as adults, we cringe at such things because we're a pile of schnooks. The kids were captivated.

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