The following is a press release from National Geogrpahic:
Today, National Geographic announced the highly anticipated return of dog behavior expert Cesar Millan with “Cesar Millan: Better Human, Better Dog,” premiering on July 30, 2021, at 9/8c on National Geographic and simulcast on Nat Geo WILD. The all-new 10-part series brings Cesar back when pet owners need him the most, as the world has changed significantly since Cesar made his television debut 16 years ago. Airing globally in 172 countries and 43 languages, new episodes will air back-to-back on Fridays at 9/8c and 10/9c on National Geographic and encore Sundays at 8/7c and 9/8c on Nat Geo WILD. Episodes will also be available to stream on Disney+ each Wednesday, starting Aug. 4, 2021.
As humans face a world never seen before, they have turned to four-legged friends as a way to console, bringing harmony and peace to their homes. In fact, dog adoptions are hitting record highs over the past year, with some cities reporting a 90% rise in adoption rates. However, with great power comes great responsibility, and sometimes more pooches can cause more problems. Many rescue dogs can come from a troubled past resulting in unknown trust issues, which can be difficult for new owners. “Cesar Millan: Better Human, Better Dog” showcases Cesar Millan as he takes on the most challenging cases yet, treating a host of new canine behavioral issues impacted by well-intentioned but impulsive owners.
In the new series, Cesar opens the gates to the famed Dog Psychology Center, his California ranch retreat for dogs. Here he transforms canines – and families – one case at a time, working to make the world a better place. With updated philosophies, new techniques and family support, Cesar tackles some of the most demanding cases of his career.
Transformations include cases like Goliath, a dog that was once so unpredictably aggressive he blocked paramedics from entering his home during a family emergency. He is now a medical companion animal, able to seek assistance when his owner suffers a seizure. Also, follow Insta-famous Ducky the Yorkie as he em’barks’ on a journey with Cesar to gain comfort and composure with his second owner so that the newlyweds can finally pursue their dreams of starting a family. A rottweiler named Kuma is also transformed from an unstable liability to a calm, confident member of a family with five young children. To complement his efforts, Cesar’s own exotic animal ‘paw’sonal assistants pitch in to assist in the rehabilitation process – including llamas, a parrot and a miniature horse – all full-time residents of the Dog Psychology Center.
Episode descriptions and premiere dates are as follows:
“Fit For Service”
Premieres Friday, July 30, at 9/8c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 4
Cesar welcomes a broken pack to the ranch and helps the pet parents overcome past trauma so they can move forward united. Getting a little help from DPC trainers, Cesar turns a dangerous pit bull into a well-balanced dog who can provide help in an emergency. The pet parents of a famous Yorkie seek help from Cesar to get his frantic behavior under control before they start a family.
“One Brick at a Time”
Premieres Friday, July 30, at 10/9c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 4
Cesar comes to the aid of a 68-year-old recently retired woman, Judy, whose over-excited Australian kelpie, Shadow, has ruined her retirement and has developed a strange fixation with bricks. After several attempts to train and correct both the dog and Judy’s behavior, Cesar is able to transform them both, making for one of the most rewarding transformations in Cesar’s career.
Premieres Friday, Aug. 6, at 9/8c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 11
Cesar aids a family of first responders with three large and out-of-control dogs, including an aggressive pit bull. With help from his own pack, Cesar teaches the family new techniques to prevent dangerous behavior and get this pack back on track. First-time dog owners of an over-excited bernedoodle with separation anxiety look to Cesar for guidance to bring order to their home.
“Front of the Pack”
Premieres Friday, Aug. 6, at 10/9c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 11
Cesar helps a military veteran and his pack get back in order when his German shepherd mix, who helped him through his PTSD, has developed an unhealthy bond with him. And later, a young woman looks to Cesar for help when her dachshund puppy’s dangerous habit of eating trash off the ground has put her in a life-threatening situation.
Premieres Friday, Aug. 13, at 9/8c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 18
The Thompson pack is recovering from past trauma at the hands of an abusive ex-husband. Now, the women have suffered another tragedy: coonhound Nyla has become explosively aggressive, accidentally killing one family dog and viciously attacking another. Cesar needs to help the entire Thompson pack heal from past wounds and rehabilitate Nyla before the family is faced with a heartbreaking decision.
Premieres Friday, Aug. 13, at 10/9c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 18
Cesar sets out to help a young couple’s cantankerous Chihuahua, whose recent blindness makes him increasingly hostile to be around. And later, a family makes a desperate plea to Cesar to help them rein in their fast-growing and overexcited Belgian Malinois before he becomes too tough to tame.
Premieres Friday, Aug. 20, at 9/8c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 25
Cesar works with a Mexican breed close to his heart when he rehabilitates twin dogs whose over-excited behavior has put their owner at risk of eviction from her apartment building. Later, an actress turns to Cesar for help with an overprotective pint-sized pooch that’s creating too much drama of her own.
“Dogs v. Cats”
Premieres Friday, Aug. 20, at 10/9c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 25
Cesar helps a family of seven with their young Rottweiler, who’s grown aggressive and territorial after a burglary at the family home. With help from his own pack, Cesar instructs the pet parents on techniques to exert leadership behavior and reestablish themselves atop the pack. Parents of a young pitsky with an overactive prey drive toward their cats look to Cesar for guidance to bring order and harmony into their home.
“Tail End of Trauma”
Premieres Friday, Aug. 27, at 9/8c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Sept. 1
Cesar helps a fearful family, which is still holding on to the pain of losing their first dog in a tragic accident, deal with their two-year-old black lab’s similarly aggressive personality. And later, a young 10-year-old girl looks to Cesar for help when her emotional support puppy is causing more chaos than comfort.
Premieres Friday, Aug. 27, at 10/9c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Sept. 1
Cesar sets out to help a young couple’s sensitive Australian cattle dog, whose severe separation anxiety has held hostage the lives of his pet parents for nearly a year. And later, Cesar attempts to calm a blinding Lhasa apso, who lacks basic hygiene and has almost become too hostile for his exhausted owners to provide his needed eye care.
CESAR MILLAN: BETTER HUMAN BETTER DOG is the perfect series for pet owners across America – new and old! Even through troubled times, Cesar constantly overcomes obstacles, instilling faith in disgruntled pet owners. Humans are clearly not the only ones feeling restless with the onset of the dog days of summer. Dogs need help adjusting to the dynamic world we are living in too!
CESAR MILLAN: BETTER HUMAN BETTER DOG is produced by Leepson Bounds Entertainment for National Geographic. Cesar Millan serves as host and executive producer, with special consideration to Cesar’s Way Inc. and support from the Cesar Millan Foundation. For Leepson Bounds, executive producers are David Leepson, Jane Mun, Roger Roddy and Aaron Rice. For National Geographic, executive producer is Breanna Hoepner; senior vice president of unscripted development and production is Janet Han Vissering.
About National Geographic Partners LLC:
National Geographic Partners LLC (NGP), a joint venture between The Walt Disney Company and the National Geographic Society, is committed to bringing the world premium science, adventure and exploration content across an unrivaled portfolio of media assets. NGP combines the global National Geographic television channels (National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo WILD, Nat Geo MUNDO, Nat Geo PEOPLE) with National Geographic’s media and consumer-oriented assets, including National Geographic magazines; National Geographic studios; related digital and social media platforms; books; maps; children’s media; and ancillary activities that include travel, global experiences and events, archival sales, licensing and e-commerce businesses. Furthering knowledge and understanding of our world has been the core purpose of National Geographic for 133 years, and now we are committed to going deeper, pushing boundaries, going further for our consumers … and reaching millions of people around the world in 172 countries and 43 languages every month as we do it. NGP returns 27 percent of our proceeds to the nonprofit National Geographic Society to fund work in the areas of science, exploration, conservation and education. For more information visit natgeotv.com or nationalgeographic.com, or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest.
Dogs may get credit for being humanity’s best friend, but to many people, cats are just as much our loyal partners — even though if you asked cats they might not admit it! “Cat People” explores our fascinating relationship with cats through the lens of some of the most remarkable and surprising “cat people” in the world, defying the negative stereotypes of what it means to be a cat person while revealing the fundamental truths of what it means to have deep bonds with these fiercely independent, mysterious creatures.
Our beloved best friends are back! Dogs returns to explore the powerful bond between humanity and dogs in four new intimate, heartwarming episodes. Whether it’s the story of an astronaut, a priest, a military contractor, or the handler of a legendary university mascot, Dogs shows us how these beautiful animals occupy the same place in all of our hearts — one reserved not just for pets, but for family.
Season 2 of “Dogs” premieres on Netflix on July 7, 2021.
The 145th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show took place at Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown, New York, on June 12 and June 13, 2021. In the U.S., portions of the event were televised on Fox, FS1 and FS2. The show could also be livestreamed on the Fox Sports app and FoxSports.com. GCHG CH Pequest Wasabi, a 3-year-old male Pekinese, was named Best in Show.
It was the first time that the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show took place Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown, New York. The show’s usual location at New York City’s Madison Square Garden was not available due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The event also makred the first time in more than 30 years that the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show named its Best in Show winner live on broadcast TV. The show has been on
Anchoring the weekend’s primetime coverage were MLB, NFL and NASCAR host Chris Myers, Westminster Kennel Club announcer Gail Miller Bisher and judge Don Sturz in the booth. Jenny Taft, moderator of FS1 studio show “Undisputed” and the network’s lead college football reporter, returned as the event’s host. NFL and soccer reporter Sara Walsh interviewed judges and handlers.
FS1 televised group judging on June 12 and June 13, with Fox televising more group judging and the crowining of the Best in Show winner live.
Westminster Weekend began June 12 with the Masters Agility Championship on Fox. Fox Soccer lead play-by-play announcer John Strong called the action, joining analyst and dog trainer Terry Simons and reporter Jennifer Hale.
Strong and Hale also contributed to Fox’s breed judging June 12 on FS2 and June 13 on FS1. Veteran judges Kimberly Meredith and Jason Hoke joined Strong, while Hale spoke with some of the event’s participants.
The Fox Sports app and WestminsterKennelClub.org provided more coverage of the weekend’s events with original content and bonus cameras. Charlotte Wilder, Fox Sports columnist and co-host of The People’s Sports Podcast, was on location with regular updates across Fox Sports digital and social platforms.
Here are the results of the event:
2021 Best in Show was awarded to GCHG CH Pequest Wasabi.
Breeder: David Fitzpatrick
Owner: Sandra Middlebrooks & Peggy Steinman & Iris Love & D Fitzpatrick
Sire: GCHG CH Pequest Pickwick
Dam: CH Pequest Sushi GrandAKCTS 38696002
2021 Reserve Best In Show was awarded to GCHP CH Pinnacle Kentucky Bourbon
Breeder: Justin Smithey & Yvonne Sovereign
Owner: Justin Smithey & Dr Ken Latimer & Judy Descutner & Nancy Shaw & Cheslie Smithey
Culture Representation: The documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, white, Latino and Asian) discussing their connection to the groundbreaking children’s TV series “Sesame Street.”
Culture Clash: “Sesame Street,” which launched in 1969 on PBS, was the first nationally televised children’s program in the U.S. to be racially integrated, and “Sesame Street” has endured controversy over racial diversity, AIDS and representation of the LGBTQ community.
Culture Audience: “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a comprehensive overview of “Sesame Street,” with an emphasis on how “Sesame Street” is responding to current global issues.
ABC’s documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” offers some nostalgia for “Sesame Street” fans, but the movie is more concered about how this groundbreaking children’s culture has made an impact around the world and with contemporary social issues. Directed by Rebecca Gitlitz, it’s an occasionally repetitive film that admirably embraces diversity in a variety of viewpoints. The major downside to the film is that it won’t be considered a timeless “Sesame Street” documentary, because the movie very much looks like it was made in 2020/2021. Therefore, huge parts of the movie will look outdated in a few years.
“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” premiered on ABC just three days after director Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” was released in select U.S. cinemas. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” which focused mainly on “Sesame Street’s” history from 1969 to the early 1990s, interviewed people who were “Sesame Street” employees from this time period, as well as some of the family members of principal “Sesame Street” employees who are now deceased. “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” takes a broader approach and includes the perspectives of not just past and present employees of “Sesame Street” but also several “Sesame Street” fans who are famous and not famous.
In addition, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (which was produced by Time Studios) makes a noteworthy effort to convey the global impact of “Sesame Street,” by including footage and interviews with people involved with the adapted versions of “Sesame Street” in the Middle East and in South Africa. “Sesame Street,” which is filmed in New York City, launched in 1969 on PBS. In the U.S., first-run episodes of “Sesame Street” began airing on HBO in 2016, and then on HBO Max in 2020. “Sesame Street” is now available in more than 150 countries.
“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” quickly breezes through how “Sesame Street” was conceived and launched. There are brief mentions of “Sesame Street” co-creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, but this documentary does not interview them. “Street Gang” has interviews with Ganz Cooney and Morrisett, who go into details about how they were inspired to create “Sesame Street” to reach pre-school kids, particularly African American children in urban cities, who had television as an electronic babysitter.
“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” just like “Street Gang” did, discusses that the concept behind “Sesame Street” was to have a children’s TV show with a racially integrated cast and puppets, which were called muppets. A lot of research went into creating the show before it was even launched. The intent of “Sesame Street” was for the show to be educational and entertaining.
But the creators also wanted “Sesame Street” to include real-life topics that weren’t normally discussed on children’s television at the time. For example, when actor Will Lee, who played “Sesame Street” character Mr. Hooper, died in 1982, “Sesame Street” had an episode that discussed Mr. Hooper dying. “Sesame Street” did not lie to the audience by making up a story that Mr. Hooper had moved away or was still alive somewhere.
Time For Kids editorial director Andrea Delbanco says, “Many people avoid the topics that they know are going to be lightning rods. ‘Sesame Street’ goes straight for it. And they handle each and every one of them with the amount of thoughtfulness and research and care that they require.”
David Kamp, author of “Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America,” mentions that one of the reasons for the longevity of “Sesame Street” is the show’s ability to adapt to changing times: “They’ll pivot. They’ll adjust. They’ll say, ‘We got it wrong. Now, we’re going to get it right.’ That’s one of [the show’s] great virtues.”
One of the noticeable differences seen in comparing these two “Sesame Street” documentaries is how racial diversity has improved for “Sesame Street” behind the scenes. “Street Gang,” which focused on the first few decades of “Sesame Street” shows that although the on-camera cast was racially diverse, behind the scenes it was another story: Only white people were the leaders and decision makers for “Sesame Street” in the show’s early years. Several current “Sesame Street” decision makers are interviewed in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” and it’s definitely a more racially diverse group of people, compared to who was running the show in the first two decades of “Sesame Street.”
Sonia Monzano, an original “Sesame Street” cast member (her character is Maria), says that although the show has always had a racially diverse cast, the muppets are the “Sesame Street” characters that people remember the most. “I remember my first scene with [muppet character] Grover,” Monzano comments with a chuckle. “It took me a while to be comfortable, not try to upstage them. And that’s the same with kids. You give them the platform. Get out of their way.”
As memorable as the “Sesame Street” muppets are, the human characters on the show had a particular impact on children, who saw “Sesame Street” people who reminded them of their family members or neighbors. Several celebrities who are interviewed in the documentary grew up watching “Sesame Street”—including Lucy Liu, Rosie Perez, Olivia Munn and Questlove—and they talk about the importance of seeing their lives and experiences represented on the show.
Perez comments on the show’s racial diversity: “We needed to see that, because when you’re a little girl in Brooklyn watching ‘Sesame Street,’ it’s nice to know that when you opened your door and walked down your stoop, you had the same type of people on your television.” Perez says about “Sesame Street’s” Maria character: “She was my Mary Tyler Moore,” and that until Maria came along, “Desi Arnaz Jr. was our only [Hispanic TV] role model for years.”
Racism, social justice and AIDS are some of the topics that “Sesame Street” has openly discussed over the years, sometimes to considerable controversy. But one topic was apparently too much to handle in “Sesame Street’s” first year: divorce. In “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” it’s mentioned that the original pilot episode of “Sesame Street” had a segment about muppet character Mr. Snuffleupagus dealing with his parents’ divorce. The “Sesame Street” executives did a test screening of this episode with children.
“The kids freaked out” because the idea of divorce was too upsetting for them, says Time Staff writer Cady Lang. And the episode was “tossed out.” The documentary has some of this unaired Mr. Snuffleupagus “divorce” footage. In the documentary, Martin P. Robinson, the puppeteer and original voice for Mr. Snuffleupagus, expresses disappointment that this decision was made to eliminate talk of divorce on the first “Sesame Street” episode, because he says it was a missed opportunity for “Sesame Street” to start off with an episode that would have been very cutting-edge at the time.
However, there would be plenty of other episodes that would rile up some people. It’s not mentioned in the “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” documentary, but it’s mentioned in the “Street Gang” documentary that TV stations in Mississippi briefly wouldn’t televise “Sesame Street” in 1970, because they said people in their communities thought the show’s content was inappropriate. They denied it had to do with the show having a racially integrated cast. But considering that Mississippi was one of the last U.S. states to keep laws enforcing racial segregation, it would be naïve to think that racism wasn’t behind the “Sesame Street” ban.
The topics of racism and race relations take up a lot of screen time in this “Sesame Street” documentary, but mostly as pertaining to a contemporary audience, not the “Sesame Street” audience of past decades. Black Lives Matter protests and the racist murders of George Floyd and other African Americans have been discussed on “Sesame Street.” And there has been a concerted effort to have all races represented on “Sesame Street,” for the human cast members as well as the muppets.
Roosevelt Franklin (the first African American muppet on “Sesame Street”) was on “Sesame Street” from 1970 to 1975, and was voiced and created by Matt Robinson. The “Sesame Street” documentary briefly mentions Roosevelt Franklin, but doesn’t go into the details that “Street Gang” did over why the character was removed from the show: A lot of African American parents and educators complained that Roosevelt Franklin played too much into negative “ghetto” stereotypes. In the “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” documentary, musician Questlove and TV host W. Kamau Bell mention that they have fond memories of watching Roosevelt Franklin on “Sesame Street” when they were kids.
Although most muppets aren’t really any race, some of have been created to be of a specific race or ethnicity. Some muppets look like humans, while others look like animals. For the human-looking muppets, there have been Asian, Hispanic and Native American muppets in addition to the muppets that are presented as white or black people. And the documentary also gives significant screen time to Mexican muppet Rosita, a character introduced in 1991, which is considered a role model to many, particularly to Spanish-speaking people. Carmen Osbahr, the puppeteer and voice of Rosita, is interviewed in the documentary.
The documentary features a Mexican immigrant family called the Garcias, including interviews with mother Claudia and her autistic daughter Makayla, who are the only U.S. citizens of the family members who live in the United States. The Garcias say they love watching “Sesame Street” for Rosita, because she represents so many American residents who are bilingual in Spanish and English. Claudia Garcia, who moved from Mexico to the United States when she was 12, comments in the documentary: “When I was 12, it was not cool to speak Spanish. Now, it [the ability to speak Spanish] is a super-cool thing that you have.”
Four other diverse muppet characters are the Walker Family, an African American clan that is intended to be a major presence in contemporary “Sesame Street” episodes. Elijah Walker (a meteorologist) and his underage son Wesley, also known as Wes, have already been introduced. The characters of Elijah’s wife Naomi (a social worker originally from the Caribbean) and Elijah’s mother Savannah were being developed at the time this documentary was filmed. The documentary includes concept art for Naomi and Savannah.
According to Social Impact U.S. vice president Rocío García, “The Walker Family is a new family we’re creating for the racial justice initiative [Coming Together].” Wes and Elijah are characters that are supposed to contradict the media’s constant, negative narrative that black males are problematic. “Sesame Street” producer Ashmou Young describes the Wes Walker character as “a happy, energetic, innocent child who loves reading and architecture.” Elijah is a positive, intelligent role model. And no, he does not have an arrest record.
Bradley Freeman Jr., the puppeteer for Wes Walker, says in the documentary how proud he is to be part of this character, which he knows can be a role model for all children. “I was bullied at school for being black. That’s something that can hurt you, and you don’t know how to talk about it.” In “Sesame Street,” Elijah and Wes candidly discuss race issues and what it means to be an African American.
Omar Norman and Alisa Norman, an African American married couple, are in the documentary with their two daughters and discuss how the Walker Family on “Sesame Street” means a lot to them. Elder daughter Macayla says it’s impactful when Elijah talks to Wes about racism and how being a black male means being more at risk of experiencing police brutality. Omar gets emotional and tries not to cry when he thinks about how it’s sadly necessary for these topics to be discussed on a children’s show.
All the muppet characters were designed to not only teach kids (and adults) about life but also show what the world is all about and how to cope with problems in a positive way. Chris Jackson (who’s known for his role in the original Broadway production of “Hamilton”) talks about writing the song “I Love My Hair,” which debuted on “Sesame Street” in 2010. The song was written for any girl muppet to sing, but it has special significance to black girls because of how black females are judged the harshest by what their hair looks like. Jackson says that after he wrote the song, he thought, “I think I just wrote a black girl’s superhero anthem,” which he knows means a lot to his daughter.
And if some people have a problem with “Sesame Street” supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, well, no one is forcing them to watch the show. Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice president of creative and production for Sesame Workshop, comments: “Following the murder of George Floyd, the company decided to make it a company-wide goal of addressing racial injustice [on ‘Sesame Street’].” U.S. first lady Dr. Jill Biden adds, “‘Sesame Street’ is rising up to he movement and addressing what’s going on and what kids are seeing and feeling around them.”
Wilson Stallings says, “We showed diversity, we showed inclusion, we modeled it through our characters. But you can’t just show characters of different ethnicities and races getting along. That was fine before. Now what we need to do is be bold and explicit.”
Sesame Workshop CEO Steve Youngwood comments on increasing “Sesame Street’s” socially conscious content: “We realized that nothing was hitting the moment the way it needed to be. And we pivoted to address it. The curriculum we developed is going to be groundbreaking, moving forward.”
LGBTQ representation on “Sesame Street” is still a touchy subject for people who have different opinions on what’s the appropriate age for kids to have discussions about various sexual identities. In 2018, former “Sesame Street” writer Mark Saltzman, who is openly gay, gave an interview saying that he always wrote muppet characters Ernie and Bert (bickering best friends who live together) as a gay couple. The revelation got mixed reactions. Frank Oz—the creator, original voice and puppeteer for Bert—made a statement on Twitter that Ernie and Bert were never gay.
Sesame Workshop responded with a statement that read: “As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach pre-schoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identifiable as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most ‘Sesame Street’ muppets do), they remain puppets, and have no sexual orientation.”
In retrospect, Sesame Workshop president Sherrie Westin says: “That denial, if you will, I think was a mistake.” She also adds that people can think of Ernie and Bert having whatever sexuality (or no sexuality) that they think Ernie and Bert have. As for LGBTQ representation on “Sesame Street,” Jelani Memory (author of “A Kid’s Book About Racism”) is blunt when he says: “It’s not enough.”
And it’s not just social issues that are addressed on “Sesame Street.” The show has also discussed health issues, such as the AIDS crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Although “Sesame Street” got pushback from some politically conservative people for talking about AIDS on the show, this criticism didn’t deter “Sesame Street,” which was supported by the majority of its audience for this decision. Dr. Anthony Fauci is in the documentary praising “Sesame Street” for helping educate people on health crises.
The documentary includes a segment on the first HIV-positive muppet Kami, a character in “Takalani Sesame,” the South African version of “Sesame Street.” Kami, who is supposed to be a 5-year-old girl, was created in 2002, in reaction to the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. Her positive outlook on life and how she is accepted by her peers can be viewed as having an impact on people that’s hard to measure.
Marie-Louise Samuels, former director early childhood development at South Africa’s Department of Basic Education, has this to say about Kami: “It wasn’t about her getting some sympathy. It was really about how productive she is in society with the virus.” Even though Kami was well-received in South Africa, “the U.S. was not as receptive,” says Louis Henry Mitchell, creative director of character design at Sesame Workshop.
Also included is a segment on Julia, the first autistic muppet on “Sesame Street.” It’s a character that is near and dear to the heart of Julia puppeteer Stacey Gordon, who tears up and gets emotional when she describes her own real-life experiences as the mother of an autistic child. Julia is one of several muppet characters that represent people with special needs. As an autistic child of a Mexican immigrant family, Makayla Garcia says in her interview that Rosita and Julia are her favorite muppets because they represent who she is.
The documentary shows how “Sesame Street” is in Arabic culture with the TV series “Ahlan Simsim,” which translates to “Welcome Sesame” in English. The Rajubs, a real-life Syrian refugee family of eight living in Jordan, are featured in the documentary as examples of a family who find comfort in “Ahlan Simsim” even though they’re experiencing the turmoil of being refugees. David Milliband, CEO of International Rescue Committee, talks about how “Sesame Street” being a consistent presence in children’s lives can help them through the trauma.
Other people interviewed in the documentary include Shari Rosenfeld, senior VP of international at Social Impact; Elijah Walker puppeteer Chris Thomas Hayes; Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop; Dr. Sanjay Gupta; Peter Linz, voice of muppet character Elmo; “Sesame Street” actor Alan Muraoka; Nyanga Tshabalala, puppeteer for the mupppet character Zikwe on “Takalani Sesame”; and former “Ahlan Simsim” head writer Zaid Baqueen. Celebrity fans of “Sesame Street” who comment in the documentary include Usher, Gloria Estefan, John Legend, Chrissy Teigen and John Oliver, who says about the show: “It was my first introduction to comedy, because it was so relentlessly funny.”
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCR) special envoy Angelina Jolie comments that The Count (the muppet vampire who teaches counting skills) is her favorite “Sesame Street” character: “He had a wonderfully bold personality: The friendly vampire helping you learn how to count. It worked for me.” Whoopi Goldberg adds, “All the things that ‘Twilight’ did for vampires, The Count did more. [The Count] made vampires cool because they could count.”
Jolie also comments on “Sesame Street’s” social awareness: “What they’re bringing is more relevant to today than ever.” The documentary includes 2021 footage of “Sesame Street” executives cheering when finding out that Sesame Workshop and International Rescue Committee won the MacArthur Foundation’s inaugural 100 and Change Award, a grant that gives the recipients $100 million over a maximum of six years.
There’s also a notable segment on the music of “Sesame Street.” Stevie Wonder (who has performed “123 Sesame Street” and “Superstition” on “Sesame Street”) performs in the documentary with a new version of the “Sesame Street” classic theme “Sunny Days.” The documentary has the expected montage of many of the celebrity guests who’ve been on “Sesame Street” too.
“United Shades of America” host Bell says that being asked to be on “Sesame Street” is a “rite of passage” for “famous people at a certain point. Got to get that ‘Sesame Street’ gig! That’s when you know you really made it: When ‘Sesame Street’ calls you.”
Although there’s a lot of talk about certain “Sesame Street” muppets, the documentary doesn’t give enough recognition to the early “Sesame Street” muppet pioneers who created iconic characters. The documentary briefly mentions Jim Henson (the creator and original voice of Kermit the Frog and Ernie), but Frank Oz (the creator and original voice of Grover, Cookie Monster and Bert) isn’t even mentioned at all.
Big Bird is seen but not much is said about Caroll Spinney, who was the man in the Big Bird costume from 1969 to 2018, and who was the creator and original voice of the Cookie Monster muppet. Spinney died in 2019, at the age of 85. Henson died in 1990, at age 53. Oz did not participate in the documentary.
The movie doesn’t mention the 2012 scandal of Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash resigning from “Sesame Street” after three men accused him of sexually abusing them when the men were underage teenagers. The three lawsuits against Clash with these accusations were dismissed in 2014. Clash had been the puppeteer and voice of Elmo since 1984.
“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” tries to bite off a little more than it should chew when it starts veering into discussions about United Nations initiatives and how they relate to “Sesame Street.” There’s no denying the global impact of “Sesame Street,” but “Sesame Street” is a children’s show, not a political science show about international relations. And some viewers might be turned off by all the talk about social justice content on “Sesame Street.”
The documentary could have used more insight into the actual process of creating these memorable muppets. Except for some brief footage in a puppet-creating workspace, that artistic aspect of “Sesame Street” is left out of the documentary. Despite some flaws and omissions, the documentary is worth watching for people who want a snapshot of what’s important to “Sesame Street” in the early 2020s. Whereas “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is very much about the show’s past, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” tries to give viewers a glimpse into the show’s future.
ABC premiered “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” on April 26, 2021. Hulu premiered the documentary on April 27, 2021.
Culture Representation: The documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African American and Latinos) discussing their connection to the groundbreaking children’s TV series “Sesame Street.“
Culture Clash: “Sesame Street,” which launched in 1969 on PBS, was the first nationally televised children’s program in the U.S. to be racially integrated, and some TV stations initially refused to carry the show because of this racial diversity.
Culture Audience: “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in the history of “Sesame Street” from 1969 to the early 1990s.
“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”(directed by Marilyn Agrelo) is a documentary that is very much an “origin story” of “Sesame Street,” because it focuses so much on what the show was like in the 20th century. The movie gives a very good and comprehensive overview of the behind-the-scenes work and conflicts that went into making this groundbreaking children’s show, which has been televised in the U.S. on PBS since 1969. (“Sesame Street,” which is filmed in New York City, began airing first-run episodes on HBO in 2016, and then on HBO Max in 2020.) What’s missing from the documentary is more current information about “Sesame Street,” including muppet characters that were introduced in the 21st century, and a contemporary context of why the show is still impactful today.
The ABC documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” takes a more modern look at the “Sesame Street” phenomenon and how the show has adapted to a global audience and a more diverse culture. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is pure nostalgia for a bygone era when the Internet didn’t exist, and kids’ on-screen entertainment options at home were mainly to be found on television, until computers and video games became household items in the 1980s. “Street Gang” (which was produced in association with HBO Documentary Films) is inspired by Michael Davis’ 2008 non-fiction book “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.”
“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is so rooted in the past that it’s impossible not to notice a huge racial disparity between who appeared on camera for “Sesame Street” and who was running the show behind the scenes. In “Street Gang,” several of the original “Sesame Street” staffers say that the show was conceived to have a target audience of “inner city” African American children, with cast members who were African American, white and Hispanic. Later, a few Asian cast members were added.
But for the longest time, the only people making decisions about the show were white. The head writers and executive producers were white, almost all the puppeteers were white, and even the crew (camera operators, editors, etc.) were all white. It’s all there to see in the archival footage.
And it’s a sign of the times. When “Sesame Street” was launched in 1969, it was only five years after the Civil Right Acts went into law, and much of the United States was still unofficially racially segegrated. Therefore, the racially integrated cast for “Sesame Street” was very groundbreaking for a children’s show at the time.
The show’s setting also broke traditions in children’s television: It took place in an imaginary urban location called Sesame Street, where humans and a variety of puppets (also known as muppets) co-existed and learned from each other. Almost everyone agrees that the muppets were the real stars of the show.
“Sesame Street” puppeteers/writers Jim Henson and Frank Oz, who both created and voiced several muppet characters (including best friends Ernie and Bert), get a lot of praise in the documentary for being the show’s driving creative force. Joan Ganz Cooney and Children’s Television Workshop co-founder Lloyd Morrisett are credited with coming up with the “Sesame Street” concept, with Ganz Cooney being largely responsible for putting together the show’s original team. And longtime “Sesame Street” director/writer Jon Stone (who died in 1997, at age 64) is singled out as having the most to do with keeping the show’s proverbial engine running for decades. Henson died in 1990, at age 53. Oz did not participate in the “Street Gang” documentary.
Ganz Cooney explains in “Street Gang” why it was so important to her for “Sesame Street” to be racially integrated, at least on screen. She says that she was “heavily involved in the civil rights movement. I was not focused on children though.” That changed when Morrisett attended a dinner party hosted by Ganz Cooney in the late 1960s.
Morrisett remembers, “I was a psychologist at the Carnegie Foundation, and we were heavily influenced by the national dialogue in the [racial and economic] gap that was being created in schools. I wondered if there was a possibility for television to help children with school, but television was not very popular with the Carnegie staff. Academics weren’t interested in television.'”
At this fateful dinner party, Morrisett asked Ganz Gooney if television could be used as a way to educate children. The Carnegie Foundation then hired Ganz Cooney to do a feasibility study, where the bulk of the study’s original $8 million budget came from the U.S. federal government’s Office of Education. The study revealed that because children were spending more time watching TV than children did in the 1950s, and because more children than ever before had mothers working outside the home, television had become an electronic babysitter for a lot of kids.
And so, the idea of “Sesame Street” was born to be a show that would both entertain and educate pre-school-age children, in a racially integrated setting that had puppets with distinctive personalities. And, for the first time in American TV history, television writers and children’s educators would collaborate on episodes. At first, the idea was to have the humans in episode segments that were separate from the muppets. But test screenings shown to kids found that the kids responded best to the show when the humans interacted with the muppets.
Ganz Cooney says in “Street Gang” that even though she came up with the concept of “Sesame Street,” she experienced sexism from certain people who didn’t think a woman should oversee the show. However, Ganz Cooney says that because the entire show “was all in my head,” TV executives needed her to bring her vision to reality. They had no choice but to give her the top leadership role for “Sesame Street.”
One of the first people she recruited was Sharon Lerner, who had a master’s degree in education from Columbia University. Lerner was hired to be a research and curriculum coordinator for “Sesame Street.” Lerner says it was “unprecedented” to see educators and TV writers teaming up to help create a TV show for children. Other staffers from the early years of “Sesame Street” who are interviewed in the documentary include camera operator Frank Biondo and composer/lyricist/writer Christopher Cerf.
Based on the research studies, economically disadvantaged non-white children in urban areas, especially African American children, were getting inferior educations in public schools, compared to their white counterparts. And so, the idea was to target these “inner city” kids with a TV show that could help bridge the gap in their education. In an archival TV interview, Stone describes why an urban street was chosen as the “Sesame Street” setting: “To the 3-year-old cooped up in the room upstairs, the action is on the street.”
Ganz Cooney admits that at first she wasn’t convinced that the show should take place on an urban street because “I didn’t know how it would play to suburban parents.” Translation: “I didn’t know if it would alienate white people who live in very white neighborhoods.” Jon Stone is given credit for the urban street idea, which turned out to be the right concept, because “Sesame Street” soon developed a reputation for not shying away from real-life topics that are often tough to discuss with kids, such as death, bullying and loneliness.
In “Street Gang,” Ganz Cooney says she enlisted the help of an African American consultant named Evelyn Davis to do outreach work in African American communities before “Sesame Street” was launched. Although having this inclusivity was certainly necessary and thoughtful, it’s clear that in those early “Sesame Street” years, the decision makers at “Sesame Street” didn’t want African American input to include hiring any African Americans in leadership positions for the show.
The closest that “Sesame Street” had to an African American creative executive in the show’s early years was Matt Robinson, who was the first actor to portray the character of Gordon, and he was a writer on the show. Robinson (who died in 2002, at the age of 65) came from a TV background of hosting, writing and producing. Before joining “Sesame Street,” he was the host of the Philadelphia talk shows “Opportunity in Philadelphia” and “Blackbook.” In addition to portraying Gordon on “Sesame Street,” he created and voiced the show’s first African American muppet character: Roosevelt Franklin, which was on “Sesame Street” from 1970 to 1975.
Dolores Robinson, Matt Robinson’s widow, remembers her late husband’s contributions to “Sesame Street” as being part of the era when the Black Power movement was blossoming. “These were revolutionary times,” she says. Matt and Delores’ children Holly Robinson Peete and Matt Robinson Jr. have different perspectives, since they were in “Sesame Street’s” target age group when their father was on the show.
Robinson Peete says, “Back then, if your dad was Gordon on ‘Sesame Street,’ that was a big deal.” Matt Robinson Jr. adds, “We looked at the TV, and it still wasn’t registering, like, how did he get in the [TV] box?” Dolores Robinson says of the Roosevelt Franklin character, “For Matt, Roosevelt Franklin represented truth.”
The documentary mentions that the Roosevelt Franklin character wasn’t well-received by many African American parents and educators, who felt that Roosevelt Franklin represented too much of the negative “ghetto” stereotype used by racist people who think black people are inferior. “Sesame Street” got enough complaints about Roosevelt Franklin that the character was removed from the show in 1975, without any explanation to the audience. Matt Robinson stopped doing the Gordon character in 1972, but had stayed on with the show behind the scenes as a writer and to voice the Roosevelt Franklin character. The removal of the Roosevelt Franklin character was apparently one of the last straws for Matt Robinson, and he exited “Sesame Street” in 1975.
After Matt Robinson stopped portraying the character of Gordon, Hal Miller stepped into the role from 1972 to 1974. Miller was replaced by Roscoe Orman in 1974, who has been doing the role of Gordon ever since. Orman says of “Sesame Street” writer/director Jon Stone’s contributions to the show: “Jon was the guy who really created the reality of it—the style, the vision of the show.”
Sonia Manzano, who portrayed the role of Maria on “Sesame Street,” comments on Stone: There were a lot of shows that really talked down to kids. And he didn’t really want that. Jon Stone thought that you could have a kids’ show where adults wouldn’t run for the door as soon as it’s on.” Manzano also recalls that Stone didn’t want her to wear too much makeup on the show, because he wanted Maria to look like a real person, “raw and unpolished.”
Manzano and Emilio Delgado (who portrayed Maria’s boyfriend-tuned-husband Luis) talk about the importance of Hispanic representation on “Sesame Street.” Delgado says that as an actor, “Sesame Street” was the first show in a long time where he wasn’t cast as a criminal or a menial servant, and he was grateful for doing a character that wasn’t about those stereotypes. He says of the Luis character: “He was a regular person! He was part of the neighborhood and he had a business.”
During the first season of “Sesame Street,” the cast members did a 1969 U.S. tour with the muppets and life-sized characters from the show. It was a big success. Bob McGrath, who portrayed the character of Bob on the show, remembers the tour this way: “It was a madhouse.” He gushes about his “Sesame Street” experience: “It was a dream come true to fall into this job.” Ganz Cooney comments on “Sesame Street’s” instant popularity: “I was stunned by the overwhelming support for what we were doing. It was if the world had been waiting for us.”
Well, not everyone was so welcoming. The documentary mentions that certain TV network executives in Mississippi were so outraged about “Sesame Street” having a racially integrated cast that these executives refused to televise the show on their local PBS affiliates for a brief period in 1970. In archival news footage, one of these TV executives (who is unidentified in the footage) denied that the decision was racist and blamed it on community standards. Apparently, these “community standards” were offended by a children’s show with people of different races getting along with each other.
Bob McRaney, the general manager of the NBC affiliate WJDX-WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi, broke away from this racist mindset and decided to televise “Sesame Street” anyway. “Sesame Street” got such great ratings for WJDX-WLBT that eventually all the racist TV executives who thought their communities would be ruined if they saw “Sesame Street” suddenly changed their minds and wanted “Sesame Street” on their TV stations. Sometimes greed trumps racism.
Behind the scenes of “Sesame Street,” things weren’t as harmonious as they were presented on screen. Ganz Cooney says that she and Stone clashed with each other. In the documentary, she implies that he might have been envious that she got most of the attention for “Sesame Street’s” success. Ganz Cooney describes Stone as “a very sensitive, difficult man.”
Stone’s daughter Kate Stone Lucas says that her father “battled depression all of his life … ‘Sesame Street’ was the love of his life.” Stone Lucas and her sister Polly Stone say that their father, whom they describe as a civil rights activist, initially wasn’t sold on the idea of doing a children’s TV show because he had become disillusioned with television at that point in his career. Stone Lucas says what convinced him to be involved in “Sesame Street” was Ganz Cooney’s “political vision” to improve the quality of children’s TV, especially for inner city kids whose parents were working while the kids were at home.
Stone Lucas says her father’s personality was that he “saw the world in black and white … You were either a good guy or a bad guy.” He was an iconoclast at heart who resisted being too corporate. One of the anecdotes mentioned in the documentary is that there was an office “push pin” bulletin board that had the words “Children’s Television Workshop,” and Jon Stone would rearrange the letters so that they would spell “Children’s Porkshow.”
The documentary doesn’t have much screen time that gives insight into the creation of the most iconic muppets, such as Kermit the Frog (originally voiced by Henson), Grover (originally voiced by Oz), Cookie Monster (originally voiced by Oz), Ernie (originally voiced by Henson), Bert (originally voiced by Oz), Oscar The Grouch (originally voiced by Caroll Spinney) and The Count (originally voiced by “Sesame Street” head writer Norman Stiles, who is one of the people interviewed in “Street Gang”). “Sesame Street” puppeteer Fran Brill says of Henson and Oz: “Jim and Frank were a comedy team … The dynamic between these two guys was magic.”
Off screen, Henson and Oz were described as opposites who weren’t really friends, but they worked well enough together that they had a special chemistry that translated well on screen. Ironically, Henson’s workaholic ways in children’s entertainment (he was also a key creator of “The Muppet Show”) meant that he didn’t spend as much time with his kids as other fathers did. Jim Henson’s children Lisa Henson and Brian Henson are interviewed in “Street Gang.”
Brian Henson says that it was normal for him as a child to not see his father for three or four days in a row because his father was so busy working. He also says, “My father was a pretty quiet, shy person, but he wanted to be hip. He wanted to be cool. And he wanted his company Muppets Inc. to have a very cool reputation. Children’s entertainment wasn’t what he had in mind.”
Ganz Cooney remembers the first time she saw Henson in a staff meeting, she thought he looked like a hippie and she wasn’t sure how he would fit in with the more conservative-looking employees. But she says that Henson became one of her favorite “Sesame Street” people. “He was terrific,” she says adoringly. The documentary has some archival clips of Henson and Oz, separately and together, behind the scenes and doing interviews.
Spinney (who died in 2019, at age 85) was famously the man inside the Big Bird costume, and he was interviewed for this documentary, which has footage of him with his Oscar the Grouch puppet during the interview. Big Bird was originally conceived as a klutzy character with the intelligence of a teenager or young adult. But it wasn’t long before the character of Big Bird was changed to have the innocence of a child in “Sesame Street’s” target age group of 3 to 5 years old.
In 1982, the real-life death of actor Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper on “Sesame Street,” was written into the show as Mr. Hooper dying off-camera. Big Bird’s denial about the death was one of the more memorable aspects of this tearjerking episode. In the documentary, “Sesame Street” people who were involved in this episode say that they wanted to keep the show honest by not lying to the audience about why Mr. Hooper wasn’t coming back to “Sesame Street.”
Music has always been a big part of “Sesame Street,” which features the human characters and muppets performing original songs and cover tunes. Joe Raposo, who composed the “Sesame Street” theme song and many other tunes for the show, is fondly remembered as a larger-than-life character. His son Nick Raposo says that his father didn’t want to talk down to children in his songs.
Kermit the Frog’s melancholy “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green” is mentioned as a song that could be interpreted as a metaphor about racism. The documentary also includes clips from several music stars who made guest appearances on “Sesame Street,” including Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon and Odetta Holmes. There’s also footage of Jesse Jackson’s well-known “Sesame Street” appearance where he leads a group of kids in a pep talk chant that starts off with repeating “I am somebody!”
“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” certainly has plenty of heartwarming moments. The movie also has many good anecdotes and archival footage. But the documentary is very American-centric because it doesn’t really acknowledge the impact that “Sesame Street” has had worldwide. If you believed everything that’s presented this documentary, Americans are the only people worth interviewing about a global show such as “Sesame Street.” (“Sesame Street” is currently available in about 150 countries.)
And the “Street Gang” filmmakers didn’t seem to bother asking Ganz Cooney or any of the other white people from the original “Sesame Street” executive team why a show that they wanted to be aimed at urban African American kids had no African Americans making major decisions about the show in its early years. The documentary doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that the groundbreaking racial integration on “Sesame Street” was just in front of the camera only. Behind the camera, it seems that the hiring practices for the “Sesame Street” original production team weren’t reflective of progessive civil rights after all, even though these are the same people who claim to be passionate about civil rights and racial equality.
“Sesame Street” has a long history, and this documentary’s real focus is what “Sesame Street” did up until the 1990s, when Jim Henson and Jon Stone died. Therefore, the “Street Gang” movie will probably be best enjoyed by people who are old enough to remember “Sesame Street” before the 1990s. It’s a meaningful nostalgia trip for “Sesame Street” fans, but not a completely thorough one for people who want more of “Sesame Street’s” history after the 1990s.
Screen Media Films released “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” in select U.S. cinemas on April 23, 2021, and on digital and VOD on May 7, 2021. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is July 6, 2021. HBO and HBO Max will premiere the movie on a date in 2021 to be announced.
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Canadian city in Ontario, the family drama “Hero Dog: The Journey Home” features a nearly all-white cast (with one African American) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A blind man who’s stranded on a boat with his sister’s dog decides the best way to get rescued is to walk through the woods with the hope that the dog will lead the way back home.
Culture Audience: “Hero Dog: The Journey Home” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a silly rescue film with terrible acting and a very predictable plot.
Let’s say you’re a blind person with an Alaskan Malamute dog on a boat that’s crashed near a wooded area because the boat’s captain had a heart attack. You, the dog and the unconscious captain are the only living beings on the boat. The crashed boat can be seen by a rescue helicopter that’s sure to be on its way when you’ve been reported missing on the boat. Instead of waiting for the rescue helicopter, you decide to take the dog and walk through the dense woods (where you won’t be seen by the rescue helicopter) because you think the dog will lead you back to your home.
That’s the plot of the mind-numblingly awful “Hero Dog: The Journey Home,” written and directed by Richard Boddington. The movie is so bad that the only heroic thing that the dog does is show some common sense when the humans in the movie make very dumb decisions. Meanwhile, viewers who sit through this junkpile film will either laugh or groan as one absurd thing after another keeps happening. This pseudo-adventure movie really is as corny and stupid and you might think it is.
In “Hero Dog: The Journey Home,” Royce Davis (played by Steve Byers) is the protagonist who makes blind people look bad because the filmmakers want viewers to think that someone who doesn’t have eyesight also doesn’t have common sense. In the beginning of the film, Royce gets on a small boat captained by Fred Boggs (played by Colin Fox), who will be taking widower Royce back to Royce’s family home in the woods, in an unnamed rural part of Ontario, Canada.
Royce has an Alaskan Malamute seeing-eye male dog named Chinook with him on this boat trip. For reasons that aren’t clearly explained in the movie, the dog doesn’t belong to Royce. Instead, the dog belongs to his married sister Susan Wade (played by Natasha Henstridge), who has been taking care of Royce’s two kids while Royce was away on a trip. Apparently, the best way to get to the Davis family’s isolated home is by boat and then by taking a long trek through the woods.
The movie doesn’t say when Royce’s wife died, but his two children are 13-year-old Max Davis (played by Zackary Arthur) and Erin Davis (played by Morgan DiPietrantonio), who’s about 11 or 12 years old. During his conversation with Captain Boggs, Royce mentions that he got a job offer in the city, so the family will be moving there soon. However, Max isn’t too happy about this impending move because he’s an outdoorsy boy who loves the rural area where they currently live. Royce also tells Captain Boggs that he lost his eyesight at age 19, when he was blinded by a roadside bomb when he served in the Afghanistan War.
Not long after the boat sets sail, Captain Boggs has a heart attack, and the boat crashes near an embankment. The boat’s radio can only get static. Royce fumbles for his cell phone and can’t get a signal. Captain Boggs is still alive but unconscious, and Royce doesn’t know how much longer Captain Boggs has to live. Not knowing what to do, Royce waits in the boat until help can arrive. Food and bottled water are in the boat, so he and the dog have enough to survive for at least two days.
Meanwhile, Susan knows something is wrong when Royce doesn’t show up as scheduled, so she contacts the local authorites. Since it’s already night when she reports Royce missing, the police officer in charge, named Captain Walker (played by John Tench), tells Susan and the kids that the rescue operation can’t begin until the morning. Everyone in the family is naturally upset and panic-stricken.
Luckily for Royce, his boat is at an embankment that’s visible from the air. But the next morning, instead of waiting to be rescued, Royce says out loud that he needs to find his way back home so that Captain Boggs can get a chance to get medical help. Royce tells Chinook that they’re going to leave Captain Boggs in the boat and walk through the woods until they find their way back home. It’s at this point in the movie, viewers might be yelling at the screen at how moronic this decision is, but there would be no “Hero Dog: The Journey Home” if Royce acted sensibly in this story.
Before Royce leaves the safety of the boat, he leaves a note to say that he’s going back home. Instead of waiting to be rescued from a boat that can be seen by helicopter, Royce goes into the dense woods with Chinook where they can’t be seen by helicopter and where Royce could possibly fall down and hurt himself. And yes, that fall does happen in the movie. Viewers won’t have much sympathy for this dimwit when it happens.
Meanwhile, Max and Erin think they can do a better job than the adult professionals in finding Royce. And so, they both sneak off to go into the woods to find their father. At first, Erin is reluctant and thinks it’s a bad idea. But when she sees that Max is determined to go with or without her, she huffs, “I can’t let you get all the credit!” And so, off they go with just a backpack filled with the bare minumim of food and supplies.
When Susan finds out that Max and Erin have gone missing, she immediately knows that they’ve gone in the woods to look for their father. Susan wants to go in the woods too, so she can look for Max, Erin and Royce. But then, Captain Walker says the most sensible thing that anyone says in this asinine movie: “Mrs. Wade, I already have three members of your family lost in the wildnerness. I don’t need a fourth.”
Of course, because this movie has to pile on the drama, people who go in the woods encounter wild animals who attack. A mountain lion makes an appearance. In another scene, there’s a wolf. The kids encounter a skunk. This movie is so heavy-handed and unrealistic with the large wild animal encounters, why not bring out a whole managerie of wild animals at this point? Bears need representation too.
Royce and Chinook inevitably get lost. So much for a “hero dog.” One of the worst things about this movie is that during his foolish walk in the woods, Royce brings out a flare gun, which he could’ve easily used when he was on the boat. And then there’s the idiotic scene with Royce trying to start a fire, without any thought of what a disaster it would be to accidentally start a forest fire that Royce can’t put out quickly because he can’t see. It’s not as if Royce has access to any fire hoses or buckets of water.
The scenes with Max and Erin aren’t much better. Erin is a whiny brat, while Max is an insufferable know-it-all. And, of course, it starts to rain and something happens to their backpack of food and supplies. And what is the “hero dog” doing during all of this drama? Just trying to stay alive, while Royce makes one stupid decision after another.
One of these nonsensical decisions is to destroy his cell phone so he can use the mirror interior as some kind of glare signal in the woods, where a glare signal wouldn’t be seen anyway because there are too many trees. Royce is supposed to be someone with military training, but he seems to have no survival skills. The absurdity goes on and on. And so does the bad acting by most of the cast.
Henstridge and Tench are the only cast members whose acting approaches anything close to believable. Everyone else overacts and they sound like they’re reciting lines, not having natural-looking conversations. Everything about this film is done with such unrelenting, self-important ridiculousness, with no humor whatsoever. There isn’t much to like about this movie except the dog. And it’s too bad this innocent dog was forced to be in this embarrassing mess.
Lionsgate released “Hero Dog: The Journey Home” on digital, VOD and DVD on March 23, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place on a farm in an unnamed Norwegian city, the documentary film “Gunda” focuses on a sow (female pig) named Gunda, her piglets, a flock of chickens and a herd of cows.
Culture Clash: Farm life can be precarious for animals that are bred as meat for humans.
Culture Audience: “Gunda” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a minimalist animal documentary, with no voiceover narration, captions or music.
Neither brilliant nor mindless, the documentary film “Gunda” is a minimalist chronicle of animal life on a Norwegian farm in an unnamed city, from the perspectives of some of the animals. The movie was filmed in black and white, so it looks artsier than it really is. “Gunda is best enjoyed by people who are inclined to like animal documentaries.
Directed by Victor Kosakovsky, “Gunda” stands out from most other animal documentaries because it has no voiceover narration, captions or music. Therefore, whatever viewers get out of the movie will be exactly what’s shown on screen, not because the filmmakers are interpreting or explaining the animals’ actions. Any humans who are briefly shown in the documentary (to transport animals) do not speak in the movie.
A female pig named Gunda gets most of the screen time because it shows her from the moment she gives birth to a litter of about 11 pigs. (The documentary’s other animals don’t have names in the movie.) The first scene in the movie is of Gunda giving birth to this litter. Not long after she gives birth, Gunda accidentally steps on one of the piglets, which screams out in pain but is unharmed.
In addition to the pigs, the movie shows two cows and some chickens, with particular focus on a one-legged chicken. An example of a scene involving the chickens is when a chicken tentatively steps out of a cage, where it was confined with other chickens. There are closeups of the chicken’s feet as it steps on the grass. A visually striking scene with the cows is when at least 25 cows run outside of a barn, and this gallop is shown in slow-motion. The cows are also shown outside while it’s raining.
Viewers of “Gunda,” which was filmed for less than a year, get to see the piglets grow older. There are multiple scenes of Gunda nursing them. There’s a scene where the piglets go in an open field to play and rough house with each other. And there’s the inevitable scene of Gunda wallowing and resting in mud.
Because this movie takes place on a farm, not an animal sanctuary, these animals are being raised for one main reason: as meat for humans. One of the exceptions is an elderly female cow that’s shown in the documentary. Because there are no humans talking in the movie, it’s never explained why this female cow was lucky enough to survive and wasn’t killed for meat.
“Gunda” director Kosakovsky was inspired to make the film because of an experience he had in his childhood. He describes it in his director’s statement in the “Gunda” production notes: “Growing up I was very much a city kid, but at the age of 4, I spent a few months in a village in the countryside, where I met my best friend Vasya. He was much younger than me—just a few weeks old when we met—but over time he became my dearest friend and the times we spent together are some of the most cherished memories from my childhood. One day, when we were still young, Vasya was killed and served as pork cutlets for a New Year’s Eve dinner. I was devastated and immediately became (probably) the first vegetarian kid in the Soviet Union.”
It should be noted that Oscar-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix, who is a well-known vegan and animal rights activist, is an executive producer of “Gunda.” Is the movie a vegetarian/vegan propaganda film? No, because it doesn’t preach about how these animals should be treated. It just shows a “slice of life” view of what it was like for these particular animals on this particular farm.
In that sense, “Gunda” is like any other documentary about farm animals that will give people more thought about animals that are killed for human consumption. Almost every up-close documentary about animals will show that animals have emotions and form family bonds with each other. It’s not revelatory to anyone who’s seen a lot of animal documentaries or has experienced living with domesticated animals.
“Gunda” is at its best when it shows the relationship that Gunda has with her piglets. The cinematography brings an intimacy to how this relationship evolves as the piglets become more independent. The ending of the movie is not surprising, but it will still tug at people’s heartstrings.
If “Gunda” could be described in terms of independent cinema, it’s the type of movie that’s like a mumblecore documentary for farm animals. There’s no specific, exciting narrative, because viewers are basically watching farm animals live their lives. It’s the type of movie best appreciated if viewers have no distractions and can see the movie on the largest screen possible. It’s hard to imagine “Gunda” holding people’s interest for very long if they watch the movie on a phone.
“Gunda” also isn’t recommended for people who get irritated by constant sounds of pigs grunting and squealing. It’s sounds obvious that you’ll hear these noises when watching this movie, but without any music to drown out the animal sounds or to manipulate emotions, the sounds of pig grunts and squeals become even more pronounced. People will either tolerate it or be turned off by it.
As a technical feat, “Gunda” isn’t very mindblowing, but it gets the job done in all the right places. This is a movie that might bore people who prefer animal documentaries that were filmed in exotic and difficult-to-film locations. But for people who want an intimate look at the common ground between the emotions in animals and humans, “Gunda” offers an immersive experience that requires patience to watch the entire movie.
Neon released “Gunda” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on December 11, 2020. The movie goes into wider release on April 16, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place from 2017 to 2019, in Istanbul, Turkey, the documentary “Stray” follows the lives of a select number of stray dogs in the city.
Culture Clash: Syrian refugee teens who are homeless take care of some of the dogs, but their vagrant and unstable lifestyles make their ability to care for the pets very dubious.
Culture Audience: “Stray” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching a documentary about dogs that live on the streets and how the city of Istanbul handles these homeless pets.
People who’ve seen director Ceyda Torun’s 2017 documentary “Kedi” (about stray cats in Istanbul) can view director Elizabeth Lo’s documentary “Stray” (about stray dogs in Istanbul) as a great companion piece. You don’t have to see one documentary to enjoy the other, but it’s worth comparing and contrasting the two films. “Stray” is a more heart-wrenching movie than “Kedi” because homeless dogs in Istanbul seem to have it much harder than homeless cats.
Whereas “Kedi” focused on seven cats (male and female) and gave each about the same amount of screen time, “Stray” features three dogs (all female) in the spotlight, but one dog in particular gets the majority of the screen time. Her name is Zeytin, a tan Labrador Retriever mix with a personality that’s utterly endearing. She is friendly, smart and independent. And even in harsh circumstances, she maintains her dignity. A lot of humans could learn from a dog like Zeytin.
“Stray” begins with a prologue stating: “Turkish authorities have tried to annihilate stray dogs since 1909, leading to mass killings of Istanbul’s street dogs for the last century … Widespread protests against the killings transformed Turkey into one of the only countries where it is now illegal to euthanize or hold captive any stray dog.”
What does that mean for stray dogs like Zeytin? They are allowed to roam free on the streets, but there doesn’t seem to be the type of organized system for animal adoptions that other countries have. Stray dogs in Istanbul wear government tags on their ears to indicate if they have been spayed or neutered. The documentary (which was filmed from 2017 to 2019) is cinéma vérité style, from the point of view of the dogs, with no interviews and no background information on Istanbul’s animal shelters.
Zeytin has a close female companion named Nazar, a beige Labrador Retriever mix with a darker-toned face than Zeytin. Nazar also has blue pen markings all over her fur. By comparison, Zeytin looks remarkably well-kept for a stray dog.
Zeytin’s fur looks clean and doesn’t show any signs of mange or flea infestations. And she doesn’t look injured. The ages of Zeytin and Nazar are unclear, but an unknown person in the movie mentions that Zeytin looks young.
There’s a scene in the movie that shows the dogs near the beach. And although there’s no scene in the movie of the dogs swimming in the water, you get the feeling that Zeytin knows a place where she can wash herself on a regular basis. She’s smart and resourceful. If you believe that dogs have souls, then she has a good one.
Zeytin and Nazar begin following a group of Syrian refugee teenage boys (who look to be about 13 to 16 years old) who are also homeless. The dogs end up staying with the boys in an abandoned building. A few of the boys’ names are heard here and there. One is named Jamil. Another one is named Halil. They make money by asking for handouts or selling random items.
There’s a core group of about four or five of these refugee teens who hang out together and take care of Zeytin and Nazar. In the abandoned building, one of the boys talks about how he went to an immigration office with his family to apply for a refugee work permit, but the government only had a record of his family members, not him.
The personal stories of the other boys are not told in the documentary. But they all habitually sniff glue in plastic bags to get high, which is an indication of their emotional pain. The teens are eventually kicked out of the building by the apparent owner, who threatens to have them arrested for trespassing and loitering. The kids beg him to let them stay there and say they won’t make any trouble, but he refuses. He also scolds them about sniffing glue.
One of the things that people might dread in watching a documentary like this is the sight of any dogs being abused. Fortunately, there is no animal abuse in the movie, but it doesn’t sugarcoat how rough life on the streets can be for these dogs. The teen refugees often talk about how hungry they are, so it’s probably the same for the dogs. When a charity food truck comes by during its scheduled stop, the refugees run to it and get enough food for themselves and the dogs.
Zeytin and other stray dogs also get food by rummaging through garbage or by hanging out near restaurants and street food vendors. There’s a scene of Zeytin sleeping outside near tables at a café. And like clockwork, Zeytin is shooed away by an employee about the same time every day until she finds somewhere else for her daytime nap.
Food vendors will usually chase the dogs away, but a few will give the dogs their scraps. And on rare occasions, a random stranger will stop to give the dog some store-bought food. But most people on the street ignore the strays.
Some people with their own pet dogs are afraid to let their pets near the strays. One woman who’s walking her Jack Russell Terrier named Bella reacts to seeing Zeytin by nervously scooping up Bella and saying about Zeytin, “She might kill you,” even though Zeytin is harmless and shows no signs of aggression.
Zeytin and Nazar have an overall congenial relationship, but they show their contrasting temperaments in two different scenes. Nazar is more ill-tempered and has a tendency to be greedy and possessive, compared to Zeytin who tends to be calmer and more generous. However, Zeytin is not afraid to defend herself if necessary.
In one scene, some meaty bones are discarded on the street. Nazar growls and snaps at Zeytin to prevent Zeytin from getting near the bones, because Nazar wants all the bones to herself. Zeytin is able to sneak off with one of the bones though. In another scene, Nazar playfully greets another dog named Zilli, but Nazar (who is nearby) seems to get jealous and starts a vicious fight with Zeytin. The teenagers have to separate the two dogs, and one of the boys comforts Zeytin, who looks sad that her friend turned on her for no good reason.
Zeytin’s demeanor with other dogs is so approachable and friendly that the documentary shows that she can win over dogs who look mean and tough. She encounters a pack of about 10 to 12 dogs, and some of them try to bully her. But when she defends herself, she earns their respect, and they let her hang out with their pack for a while. Zeytin is never seen instigating a fight.
She also has an independent streak because she doesn’t seem to want to stay with one pack for too long. In the production notes for “Stray,” director Lo commented: “Zeytin quickly emerged as the focus of our production because she was one of the rare dogs we followed who did not inadvertently end up following us back. To the very last day of shooting, she remained radically independent.”
When strangers approach Zeytin on the street, she is curious and amiable. A man with a daughter who looks about 3 years old encourages his daughter to pet Zeytin. In another scene, a passerby remarks that Zeytin is a beautiful dog.
And in one of the film’s scenes that can be considered laugh-out-loud funny, Zeytin and some other dogs are wandering in the streets while a feminist protest is happening, with women holding signs and shouting about their rights. In the middle of this protest, a male dog mounts Zeytin and starts having sex with her. One of the women in the crowd shouts jokingly to the dogs, “Not now, guys! Please!” Another woman says to the male dog about his sexual intercourse with Zeytin, “Do it only if she wants to! Ask her first!”
Another dog that’s featured in the documentary, but not as prominently as Zeytin and Nazar, is a black and white pitbull mix puppy named Kartal, who’s about four or five months old. Zeytin first meets Kartal when Zeytin and some other dogs walk near a family home where Kartal is outside with another puppy from the litter and Kartal’s mother. Zeytin approaches as if to greet the other dogs, but Kartal’s mother growls protectively and doesn’t let the other dogs get too close.
Later in the movie, some of the teenage refugees go back to the house and beg the dog’s owner to let them take one of the puppies. The owner refuses but hints that they can come back at night and steal the puppy they want. The boys end up stealing Kartal, whom they rename Sari. The puppy often looks confused, but the boys make sure that she’s kept safe, and there’s a moment when Kartal/Sari finds another puppy as a temporary play companion.
Zeytin seems to have mixed feelings toward Kartal/Sari as a new arrival to this pack. Zeytin is not hostile to Kartal/Sari, but she’s not overly welcoming either. When Kartal/Sari tries to snuggle up to Zeytin or try to play with her, Zeytin moves away, as if she’s uncomfortable being a babysitter. Kartal/Sari’s time with this group of homeless teens doesn’t last long though. (Don’t worry, she didn’t get hurt.)
You don’t have to be an animal enthusiast to enjoy “Stray,” although it certainly makes a difference in how you might look at and remember this film. Even though the dogs in the movie do not have an ideal life, they are protected under Istanbul law. And that probably gives them a better chance not to be openly abused and murdered by people on the streets.
There’s a resilience to these dogs but also a constant sense of worry about where and how they are going to get their next meal, as well as how they are going to stay safe. Life on the streets means these strays can belong to anyone and no one at the same time. Unlike homeless humans, homeless dogs can’t sign up for emergency shelters or apply for government aid. But the last five minutes of “Stray” (which has the best scene in the movie) is a clear indication that dogs can have feelings and reactions just like a lot of humans do. And they also deserve to be seen, heard and treated with kindness.
Magnolia Pictures released “Stray” in U.S. virtual cinemas on March 5, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in New Rochelle, New York, the documentary “Through the Night” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people and Latinos) who are connected in some way to Dee’s Tots Childcare, a family-owned business that does 24-hour childcare.
Culture Clash: Many of the parents who are clients of Dee’s Tots Childcare are overworked and have financial strains that make it hard to afford childcare.
Culture Audience: “Through the Night” will appeal primarily to people who want an insightful look at how a childcare business works when it’s open 24 hours a day.
Affordable childcare is big issue for a lot of parents who have to work outside the home. And it becomes even more complicated and difficult if parents work the night shift, since many childcare facilities are only open during the day. “Through the Night” (directed by Loira Limbal) takes an intimate look at a family-owned business called Dee’s Tots Childcare (located in New Rochelle, New York) that is one of the few 24-hour childcare places in the area.
The husband and wife who own Dee’s Tots Childcare are Deloris Hogan (nicknamed Nunu) and Patrick Hogan (nicknamed PopPop), who co-founded the business sometime in the late 1990s. Deloris and Patrick take turns in their work shifts to watch the children in their care. The Hogans also have about five or six employees who help with running the business, which cares for children of a wide age range, from infants to those attending high school.
In addition to providing childcare needs (shelter, food, drinks and a place a sleep), Dee’s Tots Childcare gives some basic education in math and English for the children who need it. The childcare center also teaches gardening in a small nearby garden. The atmosphere is very much like a family home, and most of the clients come from working-class households.
Although Deloris and Patrick share duties in running their childcare center, when someone in the documentary comments, “PopPop is king,” Deloris is quick to clarify by declaring: “Actually, I’m queen and the king.” She also talks about why she started the childcare center. Deloris used to be a homemaker, but the idea to start a childcare business happened after a female friend of Patrick’s got into a car accident and asked the couple to look after her son while she was recuperating in the hospital.
Deloris comments on being in the childcare business: “It’s not just a job. This really is our life. My children, ever since they were the age of 2 years old, they had to share me with other children.” The children shown in this documentary are well-behaved and respectful. If people are looking for a comedy-styled film where the childcare center has to contend with some unruly brats, this isn’t that movie. There are plenty of fictional films with a story about kids who make trouble for babysitters.
To make their childcare center as home-like as possible, the Hogans celebrate children’s birthdays. They also give Christmas gifts to the parents and kids who are their regular clients. (Two kid siblings named Naima Harrell and Noah Harrell get a lot of screen time.) And when children in their care age out and become too old for childcare, the Hogans have a graduation ceremony for them. It’s made clear that children who are “alumni” of Dee’s Tots Childcare are welcome to come back and visit. And many of them often do.
“Through the Night” is a bare-bones documentary that is more “slice of life” than groundbreaking. A few parents are interviewed on camera and predictably praise Dee’s Tots Childcare. A registered nurse (who is unidentified) says, “It was hard to make the adjustment to leave my child with someone else for 14 years, but I felt secure with Nunu.” Another unidentified woman, who says she’s a single mother who has two part-time jobs, comments: “If I didn’t have Nunu, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Deloris, who is more talkative and has more screen time than her husband Patrick, also talks about the couple’s courtship. Deloris says that when she met Patrick, she knew pretty quickly that he was “the one” and predicted on their first meeting that they would get married. He was fixing her brother’s bicycle, and Patrick confessed later that this repair job was intentional because he had a crush on Deloris and wanted to be closer to her.
Not everything goes smoothly in the documentary. Deloris experienced major health problems during the course of filming. During a doctor’s visit for numbness in her shoulder, the doctor tells Deloris that if the numbness continues, she will have to have surgery. Deloris says that her shoulder numbness is the result of years of heavy lifting and other physical strains because of her job.
Later in the movie, things get even more serious for Deloris, as she has emergency surgery for a large tumor in her head. After the surgery, she lost 50% of the vision in one of her eyes. Her senses of taste and smell were also significantly diminished.
Despite these health problems, Deloris remains determined to still work in childcare. She also refuses to wallow in self-pity. Deloris says she doesn’t feel sorry for herself because “I could’ve been dead … I have to keep moving because I have something to do.”
Although Deloris mentions that the state of New York could improve its childcare resources, the documentary doesn’t get too much into details about what child caregivers such as the Hogans can do about it. Instead, the documentary shows that Dee’s Tots Childcare is more focused on being involved in community outreach activities. For example, there’s a scene where Dee’s Tots Childcare participates in a local Thanksgiving parade.
“Through the Night” might seem boring to some people who are expecting this documentary to be a faster-paced film. Ultimately, the movie gives a realistic and endearing portrait of how a family-owned business is surviving as a 24-hour childcare center. (“Through the Night,” which had been scheduled for a world premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, was filmed before the COVID-19 pandemic radically altered the childcare industry.) “Through the Night” doesn’t pretend to have any solutions to long-term childcare industry problems, but the documentary presents a story that is relatable to a lot of people.
Long Shot Factory released “Through the Night” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on December 11, 2020. The PBS series “POV” will premiere the movie on May 10, 2021.