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Nick's Christmas in October with Dora, Olivia, & the Backyardigans

It seems that Christmas decorations are hitting retail stores earlier and earlier every year, which is the only possible explanation for the trio of Christmas-themed DVDs from Nickelodeon all being released on the same day. If they’re all at least two months too early, at least they’re all reasonably worthwhile.

If most Dora the Explorer episodes were as good as the double-length Dora’s Christmas Carol Adventure, I’d probably like the show a whole lot more. Rather than attempting yet another direct adaptation of Dickens’ hoary holiday chestnut, Dora’s Christmas Carol Adventure opts to recycle its themes to tell an original story. When Swiper the Fox’s larcenous habits during the holidays threaten to put him on Santa’s naughty list permanently, Dora offers to help him win one last shot at redemption by learning the true spirit of Christmas. This involves trips through time to see some of Dora’s friends at different points in the past and one trip to a possible future, where Dora meets her “big kid” self and Swiper is exposed to his ultimate fate unless he changes his ways. Unlike most Dora episodes, this one has a real, honest-to-goodness plot and a sense that something substantial is really at stake. There’s something truly heartwarming in seeing Dora leap in with no hesitation to help Swiper, and while it never gets as dark as Dickens, there’s also something genuinely affecting in seeing the sad future in store for Swiper. It’s all done in the same wanna-be-a-video-game style as most normal Dora episodes, but the plot of the special even makes those tics more tolerable.

Merry Chrirstmas, Olivia groups four new episodes of Olivia together (plus one extra story included as a bonus feature), even if only two are seasonally appropriate and only one has to do with Christmas directly. The first story of the headliner episode shows holiday cheer dampened ever so slightly by a succession of missing objects, prompting Olivia to dream of being a Santa who returns lost objects. The second is actually set in July, as Olivia’s family prepares for a professional photographer to take their holiday photo while Olivia is also preparing for a “beach party” at her frenemy Francine’s house. Things get muddled, of course, although all for the best by the end. After that, it’s mostly the same old-for-her-age antics that Olivia is known for, with one episode set in wintertime and the rest just collecting assorted episodes of the show together. These later episodes of the show seem to tone down some of the more obnoxious aspects of Olivia’s personality that emerged in earlier episodes; while she’s still the same assertive and precocious individual, I don’t find her as grating as she has been in the past.

At least more than one episode of Merry Christmas, Olivia is set in the right time frame. While Christmas with the Backyardigans is probably the most enjoyable of these three DVDs (at least for an adult), only its first episode has anything to do with the holiday season, as the Backyardigans play at being Santa’s “action elves” tasked to retrieve his magic sack of toys, which has been taken by two dim-witted Abominable Snowmen. Conan O’Brien guest stars as the voice of Santa, who directs the action elves Charlie’s Angels style over a speakerphone, and the playful musical mayhem is as charming as ever. However, after that, the disc just jumps straight into business as usual, with the next two episodes dealing with space aliens in some way and the last involving three Backyardigans as a water park stunt team that needs to get a sea monster out of their practice pool so they can nail their synchronized sextuple somersault dive. While the disc doesn’t have much of a holiday theme, The Backyardigans is still the only show of the three that an adult can enjoy watching without the benefit of a kid.

All three DVDs are presented in full-screen format in Dolby Digital stereo. Dora’s Christmas Carol Adventure comes with a very brief “making-of” featurette documenting the making of the new theme song for the episode, as well as two music videos. The cardboard sleeve of the DVD also comes with an Advent calendar-style “Countdown to Christmas” calendar. Merry Christmas, Olivia only comes with a “bonus episode” of “Olivia’s Pirate Adventure,” a single story that would be half an episode. Christmas with the Backyardigans comes with a music video and a Matching Gift DVD Game. Nickelodeon is still not quite on the ball with chapter stops on their TV-on-DVD releases; while Dora comes with a sensible number of chapter stops on the disc, Olivia still groups the opening credits with the first episode and The Backyardigans has no chapter stops at all. Kids (or parents) wishing to skip the third or fourth opening credits sequence still have to do it manually.

Holiday-themed episodes are a staple of kids’ entertainment, and while only Dora manages to approach the better examples of Christmas specials, all three discs are pleasant enough diversions. I’m still not sure why Nickelodeon is insisting on releasing Christmas DVDs in October (or, in the case of the latest Max and Ruby, even earlier), but at least they’re all good clean fun for the family to enjoy.

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