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"My First Adventure," "Passion for Life," "The Perils of Cupid," "Travels with Father," "Journeys of Radiance," "Spring Break Adventure," "Love's Sweet Song"
by Ian Pugh It's important to understand that Indiana Jones didn't make history cool, but even more important to understand that history didn't make Indy cool, either. "The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones" (formerly known as "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" and henceforth "Young Indy") purports to portray the daring archaeologist's early years as he travels around the world with his father (Lloyd Owen), meeting famous figures and going to great pains to teach the young'ns in the audience a thing or two about the artists and revolutionaries of the early twentieth century. Because the attempt to educate binds itself to a down-to-earth approach, the series completely ignores the fact that Indy's franchise appeal lies in a careful collision of the mundane and the fantastic, of reality and fantasy. It's one thing to demythologize the romantic violence often attributed to the Old West but quite another to try to demythologize something so immersed in theology and the supernatural that to abandon them is to lose something inextricably vital to the concept. Imagine if Raiders of the Lost Ark had ended with the Ark of the Covenant revealed to be an ornate box full of dust, sans the wrath of God, and you'll understand the basic problems that plague "Young Indy".
Of course, the show's very premise lets on that its creators have little idea how to treat their iconic lead character. From our retrospective vantage point, it makes perfect sense that George Lucas would have his name plastered all over "Young Indy" as executive producer and story contributor, with the likes of Spielberg, Kaufman, and Kasdan nowhere to be found; his involvement speaks loud and clear to the same mentality that would eventually inform his ill-advised Star Wars prequel trilogy. There, too, Lucas's creative autonomy and bottomless financial resources undermined any understanding that the mere conjecture of a larger universe and a complex history contributed immeasurably to his films' magic--never mind that actually expounding on that universe was only bound to destroy what he had created. It was already difficult enough to accept Dr. Jones as a mortal man sired by a father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (itself perhaps not quite as difficult as it will be to accept that he has become a senior citizen in ...Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), and "Young Indy" goes so far as to present his life as a little boy (Corey Carrier) as he learns the ways of the world from T.E. Lawrence (Joseph Bennett), Teddy Roosevelt (James Gammon), and Sigmund Freud (Max von Sydow)--effectively limiting his identity to the sum of his parts. River Phoenix may have assayed the fear of snakes and the scar on the chin, but we're screwing around with something more abstract here. The idea that Indy's exasperated spontaneity has some sort of tangible basis is nothing short of mortifying.
It's easy to argue that we should overlook this in light of the effort to imbue movie-obsessed kids with a greater interest in learning, yet even that notion is defeated by the series' progenitor. I always get a little visceral charge when our hero gives his impromptu lecture on the Ark of the Covenant, thanks to Harrison Ford's excited delivery of a subject that his character obviously holds near and dear to his heart--precisely the kind of passion that's missing from "Young Indy"'s often ridiculously direct presentation of facts and philosophy. While such an approach does prompt one to look up relevant topics to find out just what they're missing, "Young Indy" coasts on name recognition to keep its young viewing audience engaged. There are a few wonderfully subversive ideas--bringing Indy's mom Anna (Ruth de Sosa) into an affair with Giacomo Puccini (Georges Corraface); Indy offering Jiddu Krishnamurti (Hemanth Rao) a baseball card depicting crazy racist Ty Cobb, a gift for teaching him about religious diversity (too obvious to be an accidental metaphor for unavoidable cultural ignorance); and the casting of Paul Freeman, Belloq himself, as Allan Quatermain inspiration Frederick Selous--floating around, but once again, the first few instalments (as they refer to "The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Volume One") are so necessarily shackled to a respect for written history that they never dare to do anything interesting.
The situation improves with the final two episodes on the series' initial batch of DVDs, "Spring Break Adventure" and "Love's Sweet Song," when Sean Patrick Flanery assumes the role as a young man in high school, capable of running around and killing baddies on his own. Flanery's appearance coincides with the concept of a young Indiana Jones reworked in a much more objective manner, putting the emphasis on action and adventure as he is caught in the middle of the Mexican Revolution shortly before enlisting in the Belgian Army circa World War I. If these antics transfer Indy's identity from uneducated child to historical spectator, then at least they're less interested in mucking around with the formative experiences of an adventurer. Surveying Indy's first loves (Elizabeth Hurley plays his first serious affair) somehow seems like more of a petty crime compared to charting the evolution of his personality, maybe because the romantic opposites in the films "are no more sexual than the girls in boys' magazines," as Roger Ebert put it in his Great Movies essay on Raiders. Though the action sequences themselves are best described as pale imitations of the set-pieces from Last Crusade, the sudden shift in tone provides some vague sense of hope for Indy's "War Years."
It's strange to learn, however, that "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" did not initially air in chronological order. Paramount and CBS Video bring "The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Volume One" home again in a twelve-disc behemoth that has since come to be marketed as "The Early Years", and it has been predictably forced through Lucas's trademark revisionism for your consideration. Although the original broadcast incarnations of these tales were bookended with contemporary explanations from an elderly Indy (George Hall, sporting an eyepatch in homage to John Ford), the versions presented on DVD are the TV-movie consolidations that surfaced several years later. The flashback portions of two individual episodes are crammed together to form an unwieldy 90-minute whole; these feature-length Frankensteins are spread across three individual packages, with "Volume One" containing the first seven of fourteen adventures. The 1.33:1 full-frame image is soft and occasionally grainy, if still clear enough to immediately betray where the series utilized tape-based stock footage to establish various exotic locations. The attendant DD 2.0 stereo audio is powerful--powerful enough, anyway, for the histrionic score to pierce the ear on more than one occasion.
Accounting for the size of this set, a collection of thirty-eight half-hour-long documentaries starts off with "Archaeology: Unearthing Our Past" (32 mins.), which needlessly explains that the life of an archaeologist isn't all booby traps and Nazis and actually amounts to a lot of tedious work--and this sets the stage for just about every remaining featurette. Obviously crafted for classroom consumption (or possibly History Channel rotation), these docs work fairly well as a primer on every single one of the famous faces and concerns that appear throughout "Young Indy", but many of them are also told in a familiarly dry, dispassionate tone. There are several notable exceptions ("Giacomo Puccini - Music of the Heart" (25 mins.) works primarily as a fascinating examination of La Boheme), and much like the series itself, they're a success in the sense that they encourage individual study of Degas and Tolstoy beyond their own limited parameters. But it can go either way in terms of genuine education; don't be surprised if your kid finds history no more interesting here than he does in class.
The twelfth and final disc features a host of ROM-based supplements: an "interactive timeline" that follows the entire series, offering up a few paragraphs about the relevant figures along with the opening minutes of the corresponding documentaries. "Historical Lecture: The Promise of Progress" (41 mins.), sneakily labelled an "Historical Feature" on the packaging, is--make no mistake--a straightforward lecture that chronicles what else but humankind's progress into the 20th century, ending shortly before World War I. Lecturer H. W. Brands is knowledgeable and (initially) engaging--though as he drones on and jumps from subject to subject, the piece reveals itself to be the DVD's most transparent bid to keep kids quiet while teacher goes for a smoke break. Finally, the disc includes a free download of "The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Revolution", a stagnant video game taking place during the Mexican Revolution half of "Spring Break Adventure" that's one part Oregon Trail, one part "Jeopardy!" as Pancho Villa and his cronies bombard you with trivia questions between static gun battles. Originally published: January 8, 2008.