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Hip ‘Wonderland’ Aims to Educate : Television: The Disney Channel’s version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice classics mixes live action, claymation, songs and lots of puns. The series premieres today.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Remember Alice and her bizarre band of friends in Wonderland--the Red Queen, White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, pontificating Caterpillar and the rest? Remember all the fun and fantasy, the play on words, the luscious logic of the illogical?

Now think of a televised 1990s version of Lewis Carroll’s twin classics, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.” Imagine White Rabbit on in-line skates and carrying a cellular phone, those rhyming identical twin brothers Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee as cool rap artists and a kinder, gentler Red Queen--none of that “off with your head” stuff.

Welcome to “Adventures in Wonderland,” a new children’s series on the Disney Channel that its creators have designed in hopes of being entertaining and educational. The first of 65 episodes premieres today at 7:30 a.m.--its normal weekday time slot. Another installment will be shown Monday at 7:30 p.m. to give parents a better chance to sample the series.

“Wonderland” mixes live action (Alice, played by Elisabeth Harnois) with claymation, puppets (Cheshire Cat and Dormouse), video effects and original music--with four new songs each episode, ranging from rock and gospel to simple operatic arias. It’s all set against tropical-hued sets that mix old Disney artistry with more contemporary imagery.

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The series, geared for 3- to 8-year-olds, is replete with synonyms, homonyms, antonyms, idioms, oxymorons “and puns, lots of puns,” says Peggy J. Christianson, vice president of creative affairs for the Disney Channel, who conceived the idea for the series.

Christianson has had a long history with Carroll’s books. She read them as a child, and then to her two daughters, now 22 and 19.

She also read them to fifth- and sixth-graders when she was a teacher in San Fernando Valley public schools. She found them particularly “calming” right after lunch.

Ironically, Carroll’s own words and phrases are rarely used in the series. According to Christianson, their “English bent” does not quite translate to American idiom. Nevertheless, “Wonderland” builds on Carroll’s style and is “inspired by” his use of language, the producers said.

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“We use (the words) as a springboard for the educational premise of the show, which is the introduction of language concepts, of having fun with the English language . . . in a way that kids can understand it, learn from it and enjoy it,” says Stephen D. Fields, senior vice president for original programming at the pay-cable channel.

Each episode introduces new vocabulary. In this morning’s episode, the word is defective. In the show Monday night, it’s idiom. The series also highlights such grammatical matters as prefixes ( un birthday), alliteration, onomatopoeia and the English language’s idiosyncrasies with silent letters, such as in knot.

“We present and define (the words), hopefully within the story’s context,” Christianson says. “We don’t ever say, ‘Now we’re going to have a lesson. . . .’ As a schoolteacher, the first thing I remember learning was that it doesn’t matter how good your lesson is: If your kids aren’t listening, you’re sort of wasting your breath.”

In the first installment, for example, the Queen orders perfume from the Royal Catalog at the same time that Mad Hatter orders spray paint. The orders get mixed up. When Alice suggests that all they need to do is swap boxes, Mad Hatter says: “You know, Alice, you have very good sense.

Rabbit’s nose twitches. “You like her perfume?”

Then Rabbit figures it out. “Oh, you don’t mean good scents, " he says, pointing to his nose. “You mean good sense,” and Rabbit points to his head.

“Yes, she’s a very sensible girl,” Hatter says.

Beyond words are other lessons. In an episode called “Tooth or Consequences,” White Rabbit learns the importance of going to the dentist, and children learn the word procrastination.

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A lot of episodes have “positive social themes,” Christianson said. “We have episodes on the difficulties of being in a wheelchair, on ecology--littering or water pollution, those kinds of themes. We have them on the importance of books and reading.”

There’s even one on politics. In “What Makes Rabbit Run,” Red Queen (Armelia McQueen) decides to run for office just to prove she could get elected, and drafts White Rabbit (Patrick Richwood) to run against her. “In the course of that episode,” notes Christianson, “we get in a lot of words like election and debate, the idea of running for office. Opponent is one of the words we teach.”

“Wonderland” has the endorsement of Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Assn., who called the series “wholeheartedly entertaining as well as educationally sound.” The series also has two educational consultants--Ruth Bunyan, an elementary school administrator in charge of 16 schools for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Yvonne Chan, principal at Vaughn Street School in San Fernando.


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