Harold and the Purple Crayon — Bunch Guide to Van Dyke Parks
One afternoon, after thinking it over for some time, I decided to watch Harold and the Purple Crayon.
I’d read the book dozens of times. I’d marvelled over Crockett Johnson’s clean, simple lines and admired his gentle humour. It was given to us by my nephew, and quickly found a place alongside other bedtime classics: Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen and the more recent I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.
So when I found out there was a Harold and the Purple Crayon TV series available in Canada on Netflix, I was wary. I’d been burned before by TV adaptations that didn’t live up to their source material. (I’m looking at you, Bunch of Munsch.) HBO aired all 13 episodes in 2002, making it a contemporary of shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, and The Wire. Real Dawn of the New Golden Age of Television stuff.
So I put it on to preview while the kids are having ‘afternoon quiet time.’
Somewhere deep in my lizard brain, I recognize the sound of Sharon Stone’s voice narrating the story. Sharon Stone is to men my age what Raquel Welch or Sophia Loren were to earlier generations: a towering symbol of pubescent desire. Even in her cheery narration, there is something a little unsettling hearing her undeniably sultry voice narrate a story about nighttime fantasies. At least they didn’t get Kathleen Turner.
In any case, the pilot of Harold is faithful to the original book, but still takes liberties. The official description for the animated series calls young Harold a ‘curious four-year-old.’
Clearly, he’s a pre-verbal toddler.
The “deserving porcupine” brought to life in the book to dispatch the leftovers from Harold’s picnic of “nine kinds of pie” is introduced earlier in the TV show narrative — and we finally learn what makes him so deserving. This is the point at which my five-year-old enters the room.
She’s more into superheroes and princesses these days, and asks to watch something else. “No, this is important,” I say and she plops herself on the couch beside me. The two-and-a-half-year-old twins follow shortly after.
At this point, I’m watching my kids more than I’m watching Harold. They’re into it. We’re at my favourite part, where Harold draws a whole city’s worth of windows because he’s looking for his own bedroom window.
The first episode ends. I ask them if we should watch another and they all nod their heads with enthusiasm.
“What did you like about it?” I ask.
“Everything,” the five-year-old answers plainly. No one asks me what I like best. So I tell them anyway.
“Did you guys know that Van Dyke Parks does the music for this show?”
Blank stares. They don’t know Van Dyke Parks was once Chad Hugo to Brian Wilson’s Pharrell Williams; the musical genius behind the musical genius. They don’t know about Song Cycle or Discover America: obscure, weird, almost impenetrable albums from the 1960s and ’70s that mixed classic Tin Pan Alley and folk with psychedelic ideas. Since then Parks has worked with everyone from Harry Nilsson to Joanna Newsom.
The kids are not impressed by my Dadsplaining. They’ve seen Devo on Yo Gabba Gabba and are hip to the songs that Evan Lurie (brother of John Lurie) did for The Backyardigans. They take it for granted that avant-garde musicians make music for kids.
Van Dyke Parks’s elaboration on the main theme in the first episode doesn’t sound much different to their ears than Randy Newman’s songs for the Toy Story movies. Yet there’s something subversive going on here. The lyrics for starters — where Parks talks about “crossing over” and having “a mind of your own.”
The second episode is called “Blame It On the Rain” and Parks sings a song that is nine parts Gene Kelly and, well, one part Milli Vanilli. This plays over fantastic sequence where Harold chases his own reflection through a series of puddles:
The twins love this part. They are puddle people.
As the series progresses, Parks’s lyrical verbosity stands in sharp contrast to taciturn Harold, whose dialogue is limited to gasps and giggles. In “A Blast from the Past,” Harold searches for a long-necked dinosaur while Parks rhapsodizes about bongos and beatniks.
The dissonance is irresistible.
The episode ends. The kids disperse. My youngest daughter finds a crayon (black) and starts drawing on the wall. Then her twin brother picks up a crayon (blue) and starts drawing on the wall. The five-year-old — who should know better — joins in.
Now my kids are all taggers. Thanks a lot, HBO.
Harold and the Purple Crayon is currently streaming on Netflix (Canada only). It’s also available online as a DVD in both Canada and the U.S. Amazingly, you can find VHS copies out there — if that’s your thing.