- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2002

In a world of violent 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.

Hans and Margret Rey's inquisitive 61-year-old primate has returned to help children 3 to 6 years old begin to unravel the layers of vocabulary in Curious George Reading and Phonics. The colorful program mimics the adventures of a monkey and his pal, the man in the yellow hat, with classic illustrations and animation as it guides children through five environments and helps them understand everything from the basics of letter and sound recognition to beginning reading.

After George accidentally shreds a note saying where to meet his tall friend, the adventure revolves around finding the pieces of paper by stopping at specific areas in the city, such as a circus or candy factory, to master a skill and collect a part of the note.

The educational challenges are pretty standard for the genre, come in three levels of action and pinpoint skills to be accomplished. Parents can check up on a child's progress with a handy score sheet that can be accessed at all levels. My favorite involved rebuilding a dinosaur skeleton George knocks apart while attempting to capture a shred of the note in a museum.

Parents would be wise to make sure their computer's audio system is as crisp and clear as possible. Some of the audio could sound a bit garbled, and children easily could mistake the closeness of "m" and "n" sounds vocalized by the narrator, making for a bit of frustration.

The adventure concludes when the note is successfully reassembled, and a printable document in the design of a newspaper with a child's name in the headline offers a memory of the accomplishment.

Curious George Reading and Phonics, Knowledge Adventure, $19.99, hybrid for PC and Macintosh computer systems.

Mattel's legendary doll becomes a computer-generated image and steps into the world of Grimm's fairy tales in Barbie as Rapunzel. The digital video disc offers girls of all ages an evening of entertainment along with some education in the arts.

Taking liberties only Disney could get away with, this rather depressing, though classic, story is turned into an inspirational tale based on creative expression filled with lovable characters.

In Grimm's version, a father stealing salad fixings for his wife is caught by a witch and must turn over his newborn daughter to the hag for his crime. The child ends up captive in a tower, uses her hair as a ladder for the witch to visit her and eventually is banished into a desert for letting a prince into her prison. Her unhelpful hero is ambushed by the witch, falls out of the tower and is blinded by thorns. The unlucky lovebirds eventually end up together, but what a melodrama.

Mattel Entertainment pretty much disregards the plot but keeps the prince, witch and title character. It becomes the story of a 17-year-old girl held captive in the guise of guardianship. With the help of a clumsy dragon, rabbit and magic paintbrush, she stops a feud between two kingdoms and finds love and freedom. It features the voice of Anjelica Huston as the incredibly evil Gothel, music by the London Symphony Orchestra and an animation style not quite of "Monsters, Inc." quality, but still impressive.

After watching the 83-minute computer-toon, the child can find not only some on-screen games, such as dressing up Barbie and a demo of the upcoming PC title (DVD-enabled computer required), but also two learning opportunities.

First, a 23-minute documentary about the meaning of art concentrates on the life of 19-year-old prodigy Amanda Dunbarabout. Juxtaposed between interviews with children, Miss Dunbarabout shares her oil-based techniques and how she got started at the tender age of 13. She also helps the children in a class express themselves though brush strokes. The featurette also highlights the works of impressionist Mary Cassat, black artist Alma Thomas and the first female artist of the Renaissance, Sofonisba Anguissola, with entertaining animated sequences that really should interest viewers.

Second, children get some surprisingly detailed insight into the history of art using a simple choice challenge. Barbie needs to hang nine paintings on three bare walls in the castle. As young interior decorators attempt to fulfill her verbal instructions by clicking on images, they learn about masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Peter Paul Reubens as well as some terminology and even some mysteries behind famous masterpieces.

Barbie as Rapunzel, Mattel Entertainment distributed by Artisan Home Entertainment, for DVD-enabled home entertainment centers and computers, $19.98.

ROMper Room is a column devoted to finding the best of multimedia edutainment. Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send e-mail ([email protected]).

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