- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2007

In a world of ultraviolent video games, where dexterity of the thumb and index finger is infinitely more important than the flexing of the cerebrum, there must be a place for children and their parents to interact and actually learn something from that overpriced multimedia computer/gaming system. Take a deep breath and enter the ROMper Room, where learning is a four-letter word - cool.

Home entertainment publishers MGM and Twentieth Century Fox help usher in the new school year with releases that combine classic movies on DVD with the potential for learning.

First, the Follow Along Series ($14.99 and up) offers some fairly current family-friendly films geared toward youngsters to help stimulate their desire to read.

Built upon the research conducted by the National Captioning Institute (www.ncicap.org), each of the full-length releases offers captions — karaokelike overlays of the dialogue colorfully highlighted on-screen — for tykes to follow.

Available titles include “Garfield: The Movie,” “Anastasia,” “Robots,” “Stellaluna,” “Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Kids” and “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.”

I do not doubt that allowing children to clearly see the words being spoken is a good idea. My beef is paying for this slightly repackaged product, which offers zero extras and no further reinforcement.

Take the case of the “Ice Age: Follow Along” edition ($17.99). For about the same price, I suggest just buying the two-disc special edition of the film ($14.99) and picking up some of the “Ice Age” franchise books ($4.99 and up) for an equally enlightening experience.

What the developers should have done was create a permutated disc and incorporated some of the features found in Disney’s DVD Read-Along series. Those discs offer abridged, illustrated versions of the company’s classic films as sort of an on-screen, narrated storybook with a few set-top skill-building challenges thrown in.

Viewers could have gotten the captioned version of the movie with an abridged, virtual and printable presentation of the story to take away from the television screens and read later. The addition of a couple of vocabulary-based games would round out the release.

The bottom line is watching any of these films a couple of times will not turn a child into a reader. If he watches all of his television shows every day with captions on, research says it could help.

The Follow Along series might help non-English-speaking students or disabled persons get a handle on some word and sentence structure, but to have a child read a book with his parents always will accomplish much more.

Next, Fox and MGM offer a pretty great idea that falls well short of possibilities when compared with the continual evolution of the Internet and DVD interactivity.

The premise is pretty slick. The CliffsNotes Ultimate Study Guide series ($14.98) offers a full-length movie on DVD adapted from a great piece of literature. Included in the package is a copy of the yellow-and-black student shortcut associated with the literary work.

An obvious note before continuing: I understand that no experience can replace reading the book, and so do the DVD publishers. A warning label is plastered on all of the releases.

Movie choices include Kenneth Branagh’s Academy Award-winning version of Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Spencer Tracy and Fredric March in “Inherit the Wind” and the 1935 and 1952 versions of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.”

The selection is pretty potent stuff, but if Fox or MGM had bothered to look at what New Line Home Entertainment has accomplished with its PC DVD features using IVEX (interactive viewing experience) software, they could have offered the best of all worlds.

Because these releases target high school and college students who usually are armed with laptops or computers, why not use the IVEX script-to-screen interface to its maximum? Put the film in the right-hand corner of the screen, the actual book manuscript underneath, juxtaposed against the movie script, and to the left, offer the Cliffs Notes with as many Web-linked words and concepts as possible.

Now that would be well worth studying.

Three Treats

Here’s some other multimedia fun for the entire family.

Picross DS (Nintendo for DS, $19.99) More addictive than eating pistachio nuts on a Sunday night in the middle of a “Simpsons” marathon, this latest casual puzzler gives the player daily doses of conundrums that mix crosswords with Sudoku.

Numerical sequences are listed above columns and to the sides of rows. Using the stylus on the DS’ touch screen, the player must tap the correct number of squares to complete the sequence and ultimately reveal a picture and solve the puzzle. Multiple variations on this theme are offered via timed and memory options, and the software even allows the player to create his own puzzles or download new ones.

Additionally — and definitely erasing any chance of repetitive boredom with the game — Picross enables a player to host word and picture boards for four friends (with a DS) through the machine’s local wireless point. Players also can tap into the hand-held’s Wi-Fi connection and search the world for another gamer to challenge and share puzzles with the Picross community.

Bratz Kidz: Sleep-Over Adventure (Lions Gate Entertainment, for DVD-enabled computers and entertainment centers, $19.98) For little girls, the line of big-headed dolls from MGA Entertainment is part of the world of 3-D animation through a new DVD release loaded with extras.

The story has the latest Bratz Kid, Ginger, invite some of the regulars to her house for a sleepover and, as, the old saying goes, high jinks and ghost stories ensue.

Because my level of expertise involves more male-oriented activities, I turned the disc over to the targeted demographic, who said the swift-moving 70-minute effort mirrors the fun and attitude of the popular dolls, and the animation looks pretty cool.

I found the computer-designed characterization of big-eyed girls with lips that look as if they were injected with collagen a bit troubling but, hey, I’m a parent.

The extras also stood out and offer help with putting together the best late-night party, including karaoke, a set-top scavenger hunt, shortcuts to the spooky stories and a best-friend quiz. The package also reinforces the disc content with a six-page “Ultimate Sleepover Guide.”

TouchMaster (Midway for DS, $29.99) A collection of touch-screen tabletop games often seen in bars (not nearly as addictive as Picross) gives players 23 ways to pass the time on long road trips.

Games are broken into categories including Cards, Skill and Puzzle, mixing familiar fare such as mah-jongg and solitaire with permutations of checkers, basketball and “Wheel of Fortune.” A 20,000-question multiple-choice trivia epic will captivate the fact fanatic in the family.

The game also enables two players (each with a cartridge) to compete through both of Nintendo’s wireless options, either in the same room or around the globe.

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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