April 30, 2006


A Children's Cartoon From the Middle East Has a New Mideast Peace Plan (JACQUES STEINBERG, 4/30/06, NY Times)

The show, "Ben and Izzy," is about the sometimes-rocky friendship between two 11-year-old boys — one American, one Arab. Though the show is meant, first and foremost, to be entertaining, each character serves at least partly as a proxy for the anxieties of the Middle East. As the queen's involvement and its lavish promotion suggest, the series' pedigree is unique. [...]

"Ben and Izzy," which features three-dimensional, computer-generated graphics evocative of "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo," is being produced by a fledgling Jordanian media company named Rubicon, which regards Pixar, the American animation studio that made those movies, as a role model. Led by Randa Ayoubi, 43, a Jordanian woman who was first exposed to American cartoons through imported episodes of "Tom and Jerry" and "The Flintstones," Rubicon aspires to demolish the boundaries separating the world's children by exporting animated shows and movies produced in the Mideast. The venture also hopes to turn a profit, and "Ben and Izzy" is its calling card.

Whether or not "Ben and Izzy" ever gets the opportunity to find an audience — in America, the creators have made preliminary presentations not only to Cartoon Network but also Discovery Kids and PBS, among others —the story of the show's creation is compelling in its own right, as if a United Nations meeting had played out in the back room of a television studio.

The international crew behind "Ben and Izzy" is led by an American, David Pritchard, a onetime "Simpsons" producer whom Rubicon hired as the series' executive producer. Among the others on his creative team are three Iraqis — one is the lead animator; two others are artists — as well as a Jordanian (the art director) and a Palestinian (technical director). Rounding out the roster is King Abdullah II of Jordan — who, when not running his country, relaxes with the queen by watching "The Simpsons" via satellite. (Their four young children, Queen Rania said in a recent telephone interview from Amman, are devotees of American fare like reruns of "Lizzie McGuire" on the Disney Channel, "SpongeBob SquarePants" on Nickelodeon and "Dexter's Laboratory" on the Cartoon Network.)

Mr. Pritchard, who was also a producer of "Family Guy" and before that an international banker with business in Jordan, said he has met with the king throughout the early development of "Ben and Izzy," to show him drafts of scripts and even some rough animation. Among the investors in Rubicon is the King Abdullah II Fund for Development, which was established by royal decree in 2001 to invest in technology and other ventures.

The main advice the king has given him, Mr. Pritchard said the other day by telephone from Amman, "is to make sure it's funny." The creators say they have taken that dictum to heart, providing Benjamin Martin (the American, whose grandfather, like Izzy's, is an archeologist) and Izzy Aziz (born in Jordan, his full given name is Issam) all manner of raucous adventures. Traveling back through moments in history, they are to be accompanied by a genie named Yasmine and one step ahead of an evil, obese antiquities dealer named Clutchford Wells.

But the real goal of "Ben and Izzy" is more serious: to help young Americans and Arabs steer clear of the prejudices of their parents and grandparents, which may have been reinforced by the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Iraq. In promotional materials, Ben the American is described as "a symbol for his country" who is "big" and "energetic," but "on the negative side, he is a bit xenophobic, self-centered, needs-to-win competitive."

"Like his native land," the creators write, "he sometimes blunders into situations without thinking."

Izzy the Jordanian, by contrast, is "slight of build, sinewy and studious," but "on the downside, Izzy can be a little too serious, self-righteous, superior, even devious."

The boys don't like each other at first — they argue but don't fight with guns or knives, the promotional materials point out — but they will ultimately learn "that as a team, they can outsmart almost anyone."

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 30, 2006 10:04 AM

Does this mean that Mexican immigrants will bring us their unique cartons ? Yes that should bring about greater understanding and acceptance.

Posted by: h-man at April 30, 2006 10:32 AM

"but they will ultimately learn "that as a team, they can outsmart almost anyone."

Presumably "anyone" refers to the Je . . . er . . . I mean the Zionists?

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 30, 2006 11:17 AM

Why? Jordan is Zionist.

Posted by: oj at April 30, 2006 11:24 AM

No, not yet.

Posted by: erp at April 30, 2006 12:05 PM

Given the obvious thoughfullness and absence of stereotypes that went into creating these two complex characters, I very much look forward to the episode in which Ben kindly intones, "Izzy, you need to get laid, dude."

Posted by: Uncle Morty at April 30, 2006 12:45 PM

Jordan and Israel have a Free Trade agreement, which means that Jordan both contributes to, and profits from, Zionist success.

That seems pretty Zionist, to me.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 30, 2006 9:23 PM

Michael, you're right as far as you go, but my thought is that Jordan, Palestine and perhaps others will become part of a greater Israel. It would serve the best interests of all concerned if that were to happen.

Posted by: erp at May 1, 2006 3:52 PM