"Wonder Pets! Join the Circus" & "Backyardigans: Robin Hood the Clean" Good Clean Fun
Music and kids’ television have gone together for decades, so it’s no surprise that two of Nickelodeon’s most popular pre-school shows—The Wonder Pets! and The Backyardigans—make clever use of music in their animated adventures. Both shows have gotten new DVD releases recently, and both are sure to please the tots they’re targeting while also charming and amusing the oldsters who have the baby-sitting duties.
The Wonder Pets are Linny the Guinea Pig, Ming-Ming Duckling, and Turtle Tuck, who spend their days as the class pets of a kindergarten. However, when duty calls, they swing into action as the Wonder Pets!, dedicated to saving baby animals in distress. The title episode of Wonder Pets! Join the Circus is a full half-hour, twice as long as a normal episode, and follows the trio as they wonder if there are better jobs for them out there somewhere. After they rescue a baby lion on a circus train, the three decide to join the circus for a change of pace. Unfortunately, Linny soon begins to feel that the team is breaking up, as Ming-Ming and Tuck spend more and more time with their new circus friends instead of him. It all works out in the end, of course, but not before a good amount of singing, pre-school angsting, and the expected animal rescues. It actually manages to use the full half-hour well, and even introduces some credible stress between the three. The episode also indulges in a few special guest stars, including Ben Vereen, Anne Meara, and Jerry Stiller.
The DVD contains three more episodes, with the real highlight being “Save the Rat Pack/Fiddler Crab on the Roof.” “Save the Rat Pack” is set in the bright lights of Las Vegas as the Wonder Pets try to help three rats—Dino, Sammy, and Blue Eyes—who can’t get their dance routine right. It’s a gag that’s a lot funnier than it should be, although it’s also one that will probably fly right over the heads of the target audience. Meanwhile, “Fiddler Crab on the Roof” playfully parodies Fiddler on the Roof as the Wonder Pets try to find a safer venue than a rooftop for a fiddling fiddler crab to perform. Wonder Pets! is decidedly adorable, although Ming-Ming’s exaggerated lisp goes from “cute” into “cloying,” but the show’s gentle nature and lessons in teamwork make it a worthwhile way for kids to spend some time in front of the TV. The real joys of the show are found in the light operetta musical numbers that drive all the episodes. It’s quite remarkable that the crew can manage to come up with new music with every episode at all, and the tunes are generally catchy and entertaining. The episodes on this DVD also stray a bit from the Gilbert-and-Sullivan-lite and into slightly different musical genres, such as the lounge swing in “Save the Rat Pack,” the klezmer-ish tunes of “Fiddler Crab on the Roof,” and the country twang of “Save the Armadillo.” They’re welcome changes of musical pace, and spice up the usual formula of the show. While Wonder Pets! probably isn’t the kind of kids show that adults will go out of their way to seek out, it’s certainly watchable and entertaining.
However, the musical achievements of The Wonder Pets! is easily outdone by The Backyardigans, whose latest DVD is Robin Hood the Clean. The title characters are five friends who engage in fanciful adventures in their backyard: Pablo the penguin, Tyrone the moose, Tasha the hippo, Austin the kangaroo, and Uniqua the … uh, whatever. While Wonder Pets! can come up with new light opera in every episode, The Backyardigans manage to masterfully pull off a different musical genre in every episode, and in this DVD, they also tackle different literary classics. This one tackles country/western in a silly little retelling of the Robin Hood legend with soap and sponges largely replacing the bows and arrows of the original, as Pablo plays Robin to save the villagers of Filthingham from being permanently caked in dirt and grime by Mayor Austin Stinkypants. It will win no points for faithfulness to the legend, but it’s definitely rather amusing throughout. “The Two Musketeers” toys with the Dumas classic, although the choice of a Latin-tinged soundtrack for its French setting is a bit odd. Latin beats of a more Southwestern variety are used for “The Masked Retriever,” which turns Zorro into a secret librarian who dons mask and cape to bring back overdue library books. Finally, “To the Center of the Earth” goes with 30’s jazz tones to very loosely adapt Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. The Backyardigans doesn’t really seem to try very hard to be educational or present any serious moral lessons the way Wonder Pets! can, but it’s also more fun and entertaining, especially during the video-referenced dancing sequences that pop up in every episode.
Both of these DVDs present their shows in full-frame format and plain stereo sound. Like most Nickelodeon DVDs, these shows have no chapter stops within an episode, meaning there’s no skipping the opening credits or jumping to the middle of the episode. Extras on both discs are limited to music videos and a whole lot of advertising when the discs are inserted into the DVD player.
The best kid shows can be sought out by adults who don’t even have children to provide a convenient cover excuse. Wonder Pets! and The Backyardigans probably don’t quite hit that level (for that, you need to find Yo Gabba Gabba! on the Nick channels), but both have enough pleasures to keep the adults’ attention while keeping the kids entertained. An adult shouldn’t have much trouble with throwing either disc into the shopping cart when the little ones ask for them.