Review: "Littlest Pet Shop": Big Expectations Meet Littler Achievements
It’s not really fair that all the other animated Peanuts TV specials have to be compared to A Charlie Brown Christmas, because all but the very best of them will come up short. Similarly, it’s not really fair that TV shows on the Hub network, especially the ones aimed at girls, will be compared to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, because all but the very best of them are going to come up short as well. In its two years of operation, the Hub has accumulated a consistently strong lineup of programs, with a number that are exceptionally good. For better or for worse, expectations for anything new are noticeably higher. The combination of those expectations and the show’s own shortcomings is probably why Littlest Pet Shop feels disappointing, although the show definitely gets better across the five episodes on the newly released DVD from Shout! Factory.
Young Blythe Baxter has just moved (somewhat reluctantly) to the big city with her airline pilot father, living in an apartment over the Littlest Pet Shop of the show’s title. In the first part of the pilot episode, she learns that she can talk to the menagerie of pets who spend their days in the shop’s “day camp,” who implore her to find a way to keep the shop open. The small store is unable to compete with the Largest Ever Pet Shop: an impersonal profiteering megastore run by the father of the Biskit twins, a pair of mean girls who are the show’s designated villains. By the end of the two-part premiere, the Littlest Pet Shop is saved, thanks to a pet fashion show featuring Blythe’s clothing designs modeled by the pets, opening up the show for standalone episodes of pet-and-kid hijinks.
Those hijinks will feel more than a little familiar, and the lively energy with which they’re conducted doesn’t quite manage to overcome the fact that they all seem a little threadbare. “Bad Hair Day” centers on Blythe subbing for the pet shop’s absent groomer, where she completely mauls a haircut for the diva dog Zoe, threatening her appearance in a pet show later that evening. Meanwhile, the monkey Minka is recognized for her artistic skills by a prominent art critic, leading the pets to concoct increasingly grandiose schemes for fame and fortune on those skills. In “Gailbreak!”, Zoe’s sister Gail is caught and imprisoned in the Largest Ever Pet Shop’s cages, leading to an a sequence of ever-more elaborate escape plans as each plan fails and more of the Littlest Pet Shop pets get captured as well. It’s probably the best episode on this disc, just for its lunatic energy and the pivotal (and amusing) role played by the cowardly mongoose Sunil at the end. “Penny for Your Laughs” runs a parallel story as the jokester Pepper finds a new comedic gimmick in insult comedy, while Blythe does a good turn for the Biskits and ends up becoming their (somewhat unwilling) BFF. The plots manage to intertwine these stories with a common moral by the end.
While watching the premiere of the show, I had the sense that it was reaching too far with such a large cast. Subsequent episodes do a better job of managing that cast (which also includes Blythe’s trio of friends from school, her dad, and Mrs. Twombly, the slightly dotty owner of the Littlest Pet Shop), but it became clearer to me why the pets don’t have the same staying power as the ensemble casts of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic or Pound Puppies (or, moving up in the age demographics, Transformers Prime or G.I. Joe: Renegades). While each of the pets in Littlest Pet Shop has a prominent, broadly played character trait, the pets’ names and their character designs don’t reinforce those character traits. Between her design and her name, it’s easy to remember that Fluttershy is the shy, sensitive one, just as it’s easy to remember that Niblet is the big, dumb, and perpetually hungry dog on Pound Puppies and Roadblock is the muscle on G.I. Joe: Renegades. In Littlest Pet Shop, you might remember “Penny Ling” is the panda, but there isn’t much in her design or her name to suggest that she’s the group’s Fluttershy. This means that Littlest Pet Shop inadvertently becomes something of a memory game right from the start, and even after watching all 5 episodes on this DVD, I still can’t manage to retain all the pets’ names or their schticks.
I think the relatively weak staying power of the pets is the major reason why Littlest Pet Shop isn’t as satisfying as many other shows on the Hub, since the rest of the show’s component pieces range from good to excellent. If the pets tend to blend into each other, the same can’t be said of the human characters, who all have distinctive designs that reinforce their personalities. Mrs. Twombly immediately suggests an active but slightly befuddled older lady through her hairstyle, facial features, and eyeglasses, while the Biskit twins immediately signal less-benevolent intentions with their partially veiled faces and much narrower eyes. I’m also impressed how the show can slip in small but noticeable references suggesting that Mrs. Twombly knows a lot more than she’s letting on, and that the Biskits aren’t quite as horrible as they’re made out to be. In fact, I almost wonder if the show wouldn’t have been stronger if it had stuck with a central human cast and a rotating guest cast of pets in need of Blythe’s help. The show has a solid vocal cast turning in excellent performances, led by Ashleigh Ball as Blythe. I’m also rather taken with the show’s infectious soundtrack, including the enjoyably energetic bubble-gum songs that appear in nearly every episode (although I still think it was a mistake to introduce all 7 pets in a hyperactive musical number in episode 1). Finally, the show has some amusing bits that will probably sail over the kids’ heads but make the adults chuckle, like the shots at modern art in “Bad Hair Day” and the prison break gags of “Gailbreak!”
The first DVD of Littlest Pet Shop comes on the heels of the show’s premiere last November on the Hub, and for those familiar with Shout! Factory’s earlier efforts with Hasbro Studios will not be surprised here. Video and audio are sharp and clear in an anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack. There are ample chapter stops within each episode. Bonus features include a short featurette with members of the cast and crew talking about the show, along with printable coloring pages on the DVD-ROM portion of the disc.
The Littlest Pet Shop has the same problem that Pixar’s Brave faced last summer: when you have developed a reputation for the exceptional, turning in something that’s just very good is a disappointment. I don’t expect that this is much comfort to the crews of either production, though. Still, even at its worst on this DVD, Littlest Pet Shop is still quite watchable and enjoyable, and like nearly every other show on the Hub, it’s also a show that can connect with audiences outside its target demographic.