"Ni Hao, Kai-lan: Princess Kai-lan" - Hey, It's Working OK for Disney...
The latest DVD for Nickelodeon’s pre-school series Ni Hao, Kai-lan is Princess Kai-lan, perhaps working on the theory that the whole Princess thing is working out pretty good for Disney, or just because lots of little girls like princesses. In either case, this DVD presents few surprises to anybody familiar with the property, delivering the same value for little ones with few-to-no concessions for any supervising adults who happen to be watching.
The double-length title episode on Princess Kai-lan sends Nickelodeon’s Chinese version of Dora the Explorer to a land split down the middle by a giant wall with bears on one side and foxes on the other. Kai-lan and her friends Rintoo the Tiger, Tolee the koala bear, and Hoho the monkey are tasked with bringing peace to the two sides, each of which bears great hostility to the other. As lessons in communication and friendship go, this story isn’t too bad, and it’s just charming enough that I felt a tiny bit bad about the many wholly inappropriate jokes running through my head about the centuries of atrocities and injustices each side must have inflicted upon the other to bring the situation to such a state. One of best things about the episode is Lucy Liu’s guest appearance as the queen of the bears, which flips from cloying sweetness to sharp hostility and back at the drop of a hat. She’s one of the very rare instances where a guest star in a Nickelodeon cartoon is allowed to do something interesting. The other neat thing about this episode is the brief appearance of the Monkey King, the popular Chinese hero who will be instantly recognizable to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Chinese folklore.
The remaining two episodes on the disc are pretty standard fare for Ni Hao, Kai-lan, with “Lulu’s Cloud” centering on Hoho’s discomfort at a new environment and “Moon Festival” using Mid-Autumn Festival activities as a framework for a lesson on resilience when things don’t go as planned. Ni Hao, Kai-lan has had a tendency in the past to teach kids inadvertently that being a loud, obnoxious brat long enough means your friends and loved ones will soon bend over backwards to give you what you want, and thankfully that tendency is gone on the episodes on this disc. If I have a complaint beyond the usual that this show is very much not geared for an adult audience, it’s that these episodes will sometimes take repetition a bit too far. I understand that repetition of a concept is a way to teach very young kids something, but it still seems like overkill when one character will state something quite clearly, only to have Kai-lan immediately repeat what was just said to the audience and then ask the character the same thing a third time. And then do it all over when something else happens to make that character repeat himself again.
Princess Kai-lan is the same as all her other DVD releases, with a full-frame image and a stereo soundtrack. There are still no chapter stops within episodes (despite positive steps in that direction in other Nickelodeon DVDs released at the same time). The only extra is, puzzlingly, a music video of Katrina & the Waves’ “Walking on Sunshine” (the 25th Anniversary remix) cut to scenes from the show. There are still an unseemly number of ads that play when you insert the disc (even if you can just skip forward to the end of them), and Nickelodeon seems to have added a feature where the “Play All” option on the DVD is really a “Play Forever,” restarting the disc from the start once its finished (a feature I discovered somewhat embarrassingly when I fell asleep watching this DVD and woke up an hour or two later to find myself watching an episode I had already seen).
I do still like Ni Hao, Kai-lan more than Dora the Explorer, mostly because this show is nowhere near as formulaic as her predecessor. That doesn’t mean I love it or would seek it out, but this disc is mostly innocuous and continues the show’s trend of introducing more concepts in Chinese culture than just the language. Plus, there are Hula Ducks in the last episode, although they don’t get to do much. A lukewarm endorsement, to say the least, but it’s the best I can muster.