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PBS airs 'Peter' with a bite
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist

Producer Hugh Welchman and the tiny cast of the animated "Peter & the Wolf."


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Published: 3/25/2008 12:03 AM

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I'm not sure that moving tiny puppets little by little to create the impression of motion constitutes a "great performance," but PBS expands its definition of that phrase this week and, in the process, scores a true coup for family viewing.

The Oscar-winning animated short "Peter & the Wolf" comes to TV at 8 p.m. Wednesday on WTTW Channel 11 as part of PBS' "Great Performances." If it's a wee bit late for younger viewers, well, this is a harsher, tougher version of Sergei Prokofiev's symphonic tale than most people are used to. So leave the little kids to the music and their own imaginations for the time being.

Yet for anyone with a bedtime of 9 o'clock or beyond -- and that especially includes parents -- this "Peter & the Wolf" is highly recommended. Not for nothing did it win an Academy Award. And its slight variations on the timeless tale would entrance a Bruno Bettelheim.

This "Peter & the Wolf" was created over five years by British animator Suzie Templeton at the urging of producer Hugh Welchman, and the care and the attention to detail show. It imagines a glaring, intense Peter, but also a more noble, less intimidating, but no less fearsome wolf.

This "Peter" was made using the same sort of stop-motion puppet animation Tim Burton used on "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "The Corpse Bride," and in fact the same high-definition cameras in Lodz, Poland, Burton used on that latter feature. So it has that same dreadful dreamlike feel Burton has used to enhance his animated films.

The actual "great performance" of Prokofiev's music is by the Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Mark Stephenson, but there's no denying the animation is what holds a viewer's attention -- and brings out nuances in the original.

This "Peter" opens with a harsh wintry prologue before introducing its bitter, sullen main character and, as ever, his companions the duck, the bird and the cat, who is actually more of a sidekick to his frail old grandfather. The characterizations, both in Templeton's designs and the actual animated movements, are detailed and involved. They communicate with an emotional efficiency worthy of great silent-movie actors.

The duck is given an elongated body that lends itself to comedy, especially in a sequence on the ice, and this version's beat-up blackbird has to fly with the help of a helium balloon. Both the music and the animation capture the cat's puffed-up if somewhat scruffy sense of dignity. The wolf, for all its matted fur, has an animal magnetism as well as a blue-eyed glower to match Peter's. (Templeton says in the following "Making of …" documentary that she urged the animators to think of the wolf as female, to add another layer of complexity.)

The story takes place in a more modern, barren Russia, and the hunters, when they arrive, aren't the jolly folks they're usually depicted as, but small-minded cretins wandering the winter landscape. In the end, this production strays into the city, yet arrives at a conclusion that is entirely green in the contemporary manner.

For those who stick around for the "Making of…" documentary, "Great Performances" follows with a more conventional operatic production of "Hansel and Gretel" at 9 p.m. under its new "@ the Metropolitan Opera" subseries. I have to admit, it's more of what one thinks of as a "performance," but I believe I prefer the eerie mystery and the anxious feel of Templeton's animation. Like so many chatty ventriloquists' dummies, these silent puppets steal the show.

In the air

Remotely interesting: Hot off its big win in the local Emmys last year, WFLD Channel 32 was named Outstanding News Operation and Best Newscast in the 2007 Associated Press Awards.

BBC America has picked up reruns of "Monty Python's Flying Circus" effective in May. … Nick at Nite will present reruns of "Everybody Hates Chris" starting in fall of 2009.

End of the dial: WGN 720-AM, WDRV 97.1-FM and WILV 100.3-FM are all finalists for the 2008 Crystal Radio Awards from the National Association of Broadcasters. Winners will be announced April 15.

Jake Hartford, formerly of all-news WLS 890-AM, has hooked on with progressive-talk WCPT 820-AM as Saturday morning host from 6 to 10 starting this weekend.