Review: Newest "Transformers: Rescue Bots," "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic," "Doc McStuffins" DVDs
In the span of the past two weeks, three of my favorite shows have gotten new DVD releases, and they form an interesting cross-section of modern kids cartoons. All three are excellent shows with surprising cross-demographic appeal, and all three get a selection of good-to-great episodes on these newest DVDs.
The Hub’s Transformers Rescue Bots is a show that’s aimed at boys but easily accessible to girls. The five episodes on the latest disc, Heroes on the Scene, are among the finest the show produced in its first season. The quick summary of this Transformers spinoff is that a squad of search-and-rescue Autobots from Cybertron crash-land on Earth, and are tasked by the Autobot leader Optimus Prime to disguise themselves as the vehicles of the Burns family, first responders for the bucolic New England town of Griffin Rock. While the setup is a little contrived, by this point in the season Rescue Bots had refined their approach to craft sharp and enjoyable slices of adventure that can generate genuine peril without being too scary or (usually) even using explicit bad guys like the Decepticons. They’ve also nicely developed the personalities of both the Autobots and the human Burns family that works with them, adding just enough texture to their archetypal personality types to give them real depth. Three discs have already been released (volume 1 reviewed here and volume 2 here), though Heroes on the Scene makes a fine introduction to the show also.
“The Lost Bell” is a very strong episode that nicely balances seriousness with humor, as the Bots and Cody take to the high seas to unravel a long-standing mystery in Griffin Rock’s past. “You’ve Been Squilshed” is a Rescue Bots take on The Blob, with the team engineers Graham Burns and Boulder the Autobot saving the day through science. “Little White Lies” may be the most intense episode of the five, as Chief Burns and his partner Chase get stranded underground, finding themselves in a slowly flooding cavern while the Burns clan engages in an increasingly frantic search for them. In addition to being an exciting story, the morals about lying and when or why to do it have surprising texture that shows a tremendous amount of respect for its audience. “Shake Up” is probably my favorite episode on this disc, as mysterious earthquakes rip through Griffin Rock while Cody’s nosy young friend Frankie inadvertently puts herself in peril while being a persistent thorn in the Rescue Bots’ side. While Rescue Bots doesn’t have a lot of continuity, I continue to be impressed at how one key moment in the episode neatly ties back to a throwaway line way back in the show’s fifth episode about sacrificing the Rescue Bots’ cover if it means saving a life, as well as the recurring plot element of Frankie’s growing suspicions about the true identity of the Rescue Bots. I also love actor D.C. Douglas’ performance in this episode as Chase, who is hilarious delivering Chase’s (mostly failed) attempts at humor in his usual strait-laced deadpan.”Rescue Boy” is a superhero story, as Cody gets a forcefield belt that allows him to really participate with his family in rescues. When the power goes to his head, disaster soon follows, leaving the rest of the Burns family and the Rescue Bots to save him.
Like all prior Rescue Bots discs, Heroes on the Scene comes with a fine anamorphic widescreen video, an impressive 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, and ample chapter stops within each episode. There are no bonus features on the disc this time around. It’s worth noting that the disc breaks from broadcast and production order, dropping “Bumblebee to the Rescue” and “Countdown” (the latter of which may be my favorite single Rescue Bots episode in all of season 1). Omitting the former means Rescue Bots Optimus Prime shows up on the disc cover, but not on the disc. I’m sure both episodes will show up on the next and last DVD collecting season 1, though.
In contrast to Rescue Bots, the Hub’s My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a show that’s aimed at girls but easily accessible to boys. I would argue that the most boy-friendly Pony in the main cast is Rainbow Dash, the brash and cocky flying jock of the six, so the latest DVD, A Dash of Awesome, might be easier to introduce the show otherwise reluctant boys. The five episodes on this disc are mostly drawn from the second and fourth seasons of the show, and while they don’t quite measure up to the best the show has done, they’re still plenty enjoyable.
“May the Best Pet Win!” is my favorite of the five, as Rainbow Dash holds auditions for a pet. As I said of many episodes in my review of the first season, the episode is entirely predictable but the real fun is seeing how it gets to where you know it’s going. In contrast, I find “The Mysterious Mare Do Well” a bit puzzling and a little contrived; I can safely say it wasn’t predictable, but I don’t think it was terribly good, either. “Read It and Weep” is quite entertaining, as Rainbow Dash’s convalescence with an injured wing leads to an addiction to the “Daring Do” series of fantasy books, which Rainbow Dash then tries to hide from her friends because she doesn’t want them to think she’s a nerd. Like many classic sitcoms, the plot hinges on misunderstandings taken to extreme lengths, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t funny and charming along the way. I’m not quite sure it was wise to exploit the “Daring Do” world again for season 4′s “Daring Don’t,” since doing so raises far more questions than it should. However, it’s entertaining enough and yields one of the more action-packed episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. “Rainbow Falls” is good but not great, as Rainbow Dash is tempted to abandon her teammates for the Equestria Games in favor of a team more likely to win.
Like Rescue Bots, A Dash of Awesome provides a fine audio and video experience, with the same ample chapter stops in each episode. It also comes with a bonus sing-along for the “Find a Pet” musical number from “May the Best Pet Win!”
While the prior two shows are aimed at specific genders (and I don’t find anything inherently wrong with that), Disney’s Doc McStuffins is beautifully accessible to both genders equally, and recent ads that show both boys and girls of all races playing with Doc McStuffins toys indicates Disney is aware of Doc’s cross-gender, cross-racial appeal. The reason for its appeal seems pretty simple: it’s a terrific show that’s wonderfully cast, tapping into the kind of everyday magic that kids live in daily, and is cheerful and positive without ever feeling saccharine or insulting to the intelligence of its audience.
Doc McStuffins is very formulaic, as she’s tasked with diagnosing and fixing the variety of toys owned by herself, her younger brother, and all of both of their friends. The gimmick is a variation on Toy Story, since her stethoscope seems to bring the toys to life so she can talk to them, but toys are expected to “go stuffed” whenever another human is nearby. It’s not entirely clear whether the toys actually come to life or if they’re just exhibiting Doc’s imagination, but the distinction is irrelevant. They’re real enough to Doc, and to us, and that’s all that matters. It’s very much like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic in its reliance on formula without being formulaic in a negative way, except that Doc McStuffins also much more obviously educational.
Each episode is split into two stories, with the first half of the first episode, “Doc McStuffins Goes McMobile,” introducing a tow-along cart that Doc builds with her dad’s help so she can help toys away from her “clinic” in her backyard. The cart figures prominently in a few subsequent episodes. Each episode presents a toy-scaled medical condition to be dealt with, while quietly teaching kids lessons in good hygiene and health. The second season episodes tend to get a little creative with their lessons, as in “Chip Off the Ol’ Box,” which grapples with a child’s anxieties when a parent is going in for a big medical procedure. It might be a little odd that the two jack-in-the-boxes of that episode are introduced two episodes later on the disc in “Out of the Box,” but Doc McStuffins is not really a show that relies on continuity in any meaningful way. Even so, it’s fun to get both major episodes featuring Ronda the rescue helicopter (voiced by guest star Camryn Manheim) as the last two episodes (the first of which is probably my favorite of the five on this disc).
Like most modern animation, Doc McStuffins looks great on DVD, with the same sharp anamorphic widescreen presentation as the other two discs and a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack (vs. the 5.1 of both Transformers Rescue Bots and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic), and sensible chapter stops embedded in each episode. There are no bonuses, unless you count the reusable tote bag in the disc case. There are small but telling differences in the DVDs, though. Disney continues to use their “Fast Play” system on kids DVDs, which I still find annoying and cumbersome (especially in the irony that the disc takes so long to tell us what “Fast Play” is, how it works, and how to bypass it). “Fast Play” is also only one of several things that sit between you and your programming when you put the DVD into a player; while both Shout! Factory DVDs show brief corporate logos before jumping to the main menu, Doc McStuffins gets forced trailers and a slew of disclaimers and warnings before we can get to the good stuff. From experience, anything that sits between a kid and the video he or she wants to watch is not welcome by anyone. On the other hand, Doc McStuffins makes audio and subtitles available in English, French, and Spanish, while Shout! comes with a single soundtrack and no subtitles.