By now, the runaway success of Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer makes it all but critic-proof. I very much doubt that anything I write will be able to sway a pre-schooler who wants Mommy or Daddy to buy the new DVDs Dora Saves the Snow Princess or Dora Celebrates Three Kings Day!, or the newest DVD for the Dora spinoff Go Diego Go!, titled It’s a Bugs’ World. Still, as children’s programming goes, it certainly does no harm, except perhaps in the minds of the radical fringe that believes teaching kids a few Spanish words and phrases is the first step to destroying our American Purity of Essence.
For those who don’t know, Dora the Explorer is a pre-school kids show whose title character wanders around a semi-magical world seeking out her quiet brand of adventure, accompanied by her talking backpack, a magical map, and a pack of talking animal friends. The spinoff show Go Diego Go! moves the formula to a jungle animal rescue center and follows young Diego, who is helped by his animal sidekick, Baby Jaguar, his sister, Alicia, and a magic talking camera. The trademark of both shows is the Spanish mixed in with English and fourth-wall breaking interactivity, as characters on TV ask questions of the audience and patiently wait for responses in return. The animation on all of them is simple and functional; it has an easily identifiable look and feel that’s vaguely reminiscent of the Humongous Entertainment Pajama Sam or Freddi Fish interactive games. The title story of Dora Saves the Snow Princess is a double-length episode made for DVD that combines a typical Dora puzzle-solving episode with a fairy tale journey, plus two more episodes of the show. Three Kings Day and It’s a Bugs’ World are essentially collections of 4 episodes each, with some original content released first on DVD.
Many of the parents I know say that they can’t sit through too much Dora or Diego in one sitting, and after sitting through three DVDs worth, I personally felt a powerful urge to drop Black Lagoon into the DVD player. However, I can emphatically say that this is no reflection on the quality or educational value of the shows, and I can easily understand the appeal that the shows have for their target audience. It’s true that they are formulaic and repetitive—once you’ve seen one episode of Dora, you’ve really seen them all—but in this case, this is not a criticism as much as it’s a statement of fact. They are formulaic and repetitive by design, since kids are far more tolerant of both. Dora and Diego are comfort food for kids, giving them a comfortably familiar framework where each individual episode really only differs in the details. For better or for worse, they don’t really attempt to reach out beyond the target audience, which also seems like a conscious choice but isn’t necessarily something I can say about some other Nick pre-school shows like The Backyardigans. If there really is any legitimate complaint to make about these shows, it’s that they don’t seem to have any discernible sense of humor. There are precious few opportunities to laugh on any of these DVDs.
Despite the above, I have to admit that I kind of enjoyed Go Diego Go!, and certainly found it more entertaining than Dora. It might be a gender thing—despite her title as an Explorer, Dora’s journeys are mostly of the fluffy and frilly variety, while Diego gets to romp around a jungle with wild animals, and the latter would definitely be of far more interest to the stereotypical boy. At the very least, Diego and his older sister Alicia have to deal with danger as an abstract concept, even if no harm is ever done to any of the animated animal participants. The show may go a bit too far, as when a spider very obligingly gives up dinner to help Diego, but there’s plenty of time for more realistic nature documentaries later on PBS or Animal Planet.
The DVDs themselves are pretty bare bones, but I doubt the pre-school set is that concerned about bonus features. All the discs present the show in full-frame format with stereo sound. I have my usual gripe about no chapter stops within an episode, which seems like it ought to be the bare minimum for any TV show on DVD, pre-schooler or not. Extras are pretty minimal on all the discs, with Three Kings Day getting none at all and It’s a Bug’s World only getting a gallery of art. Dora Saves the Snow Princess is clearly the showpiece of these three DVDs, but even so, its extras are limited to an interactive maze game, a music video, and a sparkly cardboard sleeve for the DVD case. The interactive maze game is rather disappointing, especially considering that the show, with the occasional appearance of a giant mouse pointer highlighting and clicking things on screen, seems like it could be translated straight into a DVD game without much difficulty.
Even if you like Dora and Diego, it’s a little hard not to notice that Sesame Street could teach its lessons in literacy, community values, and Spanish while also managing to be funny and never feeling too formulaic. Then again, those classic Sesame Street skits packaged on modern-day home video now come with a disclaimer that the DVDs are aimed at adults and “may not meet the needs of today’s preschool child”—a real surprise to those of us who grew up on them and don’t seem any worse for wear for it. Still, there are far worse shows for pre-schoolers to watch, even if I think they may under-challenged by Dora or Diego.