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tumbleleaf

With a well-received first season of political comedy “Alpha House” under its belt, Amazon will move further into original programming with the debut this week of “Tumble Leaf,” the first in a trio of children’s TV series from the e-commerce giant.

The original content from Amazon Studios is key to Amazon’s attempt to compete with the likes of Netflix and Hulu, differentiate its Prime Instant Video service, and beef up the offerings on its Kindle Fire tablets and Fire TV box.

So how will Jeff Bezos & Co. fare with the kids? I hesitate to use the phrase “binge watch,” but we immersed ourselves in the first season of Tumble Leaf at my house this weekend, courtesy of an advance review DVD from Amazon. The most important thing to note is that it was was a hit with the target audience — a.k.a. our preschooler, who was clearly enthralled with the show.

It is a charming show, featuring Fig the Fox and his friends exploring their world and figuring out how stuff works: shadows, reflections, springs, spheres, and more. Tumble Leaf features vivid stop-motion animation, beautiful music and quirky characters.

Welcome to Tumble Leaf! Fig the Fox in his home, a shipwreck on the shore.
Fig the Fox in his home, a shipwreck on the shore.

Each episode begins with a funny crab pulling a random item from the ocean (a bag of coins, a flashlight, a sponge, etc.) and placing it in a room called the “The Finding Place” in Fig’s home, a shipwrecked boat at the edge of the sea. Fig then slides down to the Finding Place to retrieve the item, which forms the basis for the adventure that follows.

The idea is to get kids thinking scientifically about the world around them, as Fig and friends solve problems. It’s an admirable goal, but as we watched, I began to wonder if the educational message was too subtle to have the desired effect among the target audience, given everything else going on in the show.

Yes, my kid is a genius, too, but we are talking about preschoolers here.

My mom, a retired kindergarten teacher, watched a few episodes with us and had similar thoughts: Entertainment value aside, the complexity and random plot twists would make it hard for a preschooler to grasp the underlying message.

The best children’s shows spark conversations and questions, in big and small ways. In our house, we constantly reference values and lessons from the Berenstain Bears, and regularly sing Super Why’s alternative version of the ABC song, just as two examples.

So far, Tumble Leaf seems to miss the mark in that way. Maybe we’ve been hit over the head too many times by Dora and Diego, but Fig generally didn’t provide a concrete takeaway worthy of discussion.

Dr. Alice Wilder
Dr. Alice Wilder

But hey, what do we know? Amazon has a bona fide expert helping out with its kids shows: Dr. Alice Wilder, an educational psychologist and advisor to Amazon Studios, who also happens to be the co-creator of Blues Clues and the aforementioned Super Why.

Adding to its cred, Tumble Leaf was created by Emmy Award-winning director Drew Hodges and stop-motion studio Bix Pix Entertainment.

Putting aside my questions about the educational value, it is a captivating and unique show, and worth checking out when the first six episodes debut on Friday for Amazon Prime members. The pilot episode is available for free now for anyone who wants a sneak peek.

After the debut of Tumble Leaf, Amazon will follow up with two more kids’ series this summer: Creative Galaxy on June 27 and Annedroids on July 25.

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