Running Time: 15m 00s
Source film: VHS; sound; color
Director: Aron Ranen
Production: Perennial Education; Peregrine Productions; Charlotte K. Beyers
Writers: Charlotte K. Beyers, Aron Ranen
Music / Sound Effects: Andrew Newell
Computer Animation: Steven Walsted
Cast: Roger Peeks, Dov Christopher, Larina Williams, Jason Bennett, Jeanette Stoney, Celeste Carrion, Ryan White, Noe Zavala
Animation has a long and storied history of alliterative character names. Classic figures from Bugs Bunny and Huckleberry Hound to SpongeBob SquarePants, have wormed their way into the collective conscience and TV schedules of generations of viewers. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that creators Aron Ranen and Charlotte K. Beyers decided to use this tried-and-true formula to name the talking (doctor) dog at the center of their 1988 educational film, A is for AIDS. Dr. Andy Answer (voiced by Dov Christopher) is the sort of oracle who supernaturally pops up on the television screen at the exact moment three adolescents react with curiosity to a televised news report about the AIDS health crisis. His invitation to the kids to teleport to his laboratory seems rife with problems, both technological and otherwise.
Despite Dr. Answer’s alluring offer of free health info-tainment, the kids are disbelieving at first. “You mean we’re supposed to follow YOU — a talking dog — into your laboratory? It doesn’t make sense,” remarks one girl, still firmly grounded in the laws of space and time. What happens next is the first of many awkward transition scenes where the kids twitch and swivel as they’re transported between dimensions.
After the kids arrive in Andy Answer’s lab — inserted via the prevailing composite shot tech of the day, the blue screen — he outlines a simple agenda: meet children with AIDS, talk about activities that can spread the AIDS virus, and explore the effects AIDS has on the human body. Each segment has a thoughtful blend of facts and quirky presentation — one scene has Dr. Roger Peek of Stanford University dispelling myths about virus transmission that are illustrated by a mime — and the film as a whole has a brisk pace. Even when the dialogue is clunky or the mise en scène hasn’t aged well, the film still communicates a strong message of inclusion and understanding, an important element given the years of hysteria and marginalization that occurred around the disease for much of the 1980s.
The final segment in the film is also the most visually compelling, depicting T-cells as mustachioed field generals and white blood cells as soldiers in a battle against a leering, creepy, and colorful gang of germs and disease. (All of this occurs before the AIDS virus reveals itself as a massive shadow in the distant horizon that rains laser beams down upon the T-cells from its glowing red eyes). The battle sequence illustrates the underlying biological concepts well, while communicating in the sort of animated action terms familiar to most children of the 1980s or early 90s who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons.
Sadly, several of the people depicted in the film and involved in its production are no longer with us. The children to whom we’re introduced in the first section — Celeste Carrion and Ryan White — both tragically succumbed to the disease not long after this film was released, but have lasting legacies as symbols of AIDS education and awareness (Carrion once graced the cover of Newsweek, and the Ryan White Care Act is among the first pieces of AIDS legislation to come out of the U.S. Congress). Producer and co-creator Charlotte K. Beyers passed away in 2005 at the age of 73 after a prolific documentary film career in which she made many educational films like this one.
In contrast to some of the other names involved in the production, voice actor Dov Christopher is something of an unknown. From some cursory searching of the public web, it seems at least plausible that this is the same Dov Christopher who contributed introductory spoken word and harmonica to Fabulous Disaster, the third album by Bay Area thrash metal band Exodus. While I would very much like these men to be one in the same — the voices are quite similar — I can’t say for certain without additional evidence.
- Video Explains Deadly Disease: For Children, ‘A is for AIDS’ (Associated Press)
- Charlotte Beyers, 73; Made Documentaries [Obituary] (LA Times)
- Remembering Ryan White, 25 years after his death (Marcus Gilmer, SF Gate)
- AIDS and Children: Longer, but Troubled, Life (Bruce Lambert, NY Times)
- Aron Ranen (YouTube)