Disappointment awaits those hoping that Nickelodeon’s top-selling Spanish-speaking moppet would get an attitude and story makeover in her new show, Dora and Friends: Into the City. Dora has gone from being an elementary school kid to a teenager, and dropped the anthropomorphic animals and sentient inanimate objects that were her friends in favor of several appropriately ethnically diverse human cast members. However the changes to Dora and Friends: Into the City almost entirely cosmetic. Dora and Friends: Into the City continues to be a show aimed squarely at pre-schoolers and that only a pre-school child could love (and I am fairly sure they will), as most of the tics and traits of the older show are left intact.
Kids familiar with the younger Dora won’t have any trouble picking up on the new one. Despite the visual makeover and the change to an older voice actor (Fatima Ptacek), Dora is still the same as she ever was: ever cheerful and optimistic as she overcomes the extraordinarily gentle obstacles placed in her path. The magical fairy-land she used to live in has been exchanged for an extraordinarily clean and perfectly safe major metropolis, while her talking map has now become a smartphone GPS app. Boots the Monkey and her other talking animal friends are replaced with several human friends: Kate, Naiya, Emma, Alana, and Pablo. Nothing else has really changed. Dora still possesses her exaggerated enunciation, with Spanish words sprinkled throughout her dialogue. Assorted challenges await in each episode, although all of them have had their potential sharp edges carefully filed down. The show even retains “the Pause,” that moment when a character breaks the fourth wall and asks the audience a question, and then waits for an inordinately long time for a response before continuing. It’s greatly reduced from the way it is used in the original Dora the Explorer show, but it’s still there frequently even though “the Pause” seems to have fallen out of favor in the latest crop of pre-schooler TV.
The press kit for Dora and Friends: Into the City came with two episodes. “Doggie Day” leads Dora and her friends through the city as they search for a dog’s younger siblings in time for a big adoption event in the local park. “The Magic Ring” sends Dora, Naiya, and Pablo on a fairy tale adventure as a magic ring shrinks them down to mouse size and sends them back in time to a vaguely pre-colonization South American civilization. There, they must return the ring to the Princess that owns it, while dodging the evil (and also miniaturized) wizard who stole it. “Doggie Day” is essentially another episode of the original show: multiple check-points have to be hit as the young pup seeks his siblings, the Map pops up and gives some useful guidance at a key moment, and everyone lives happily ever after by the end. “The Magic Ring” is more interesting, mostly because of its very un-Dora-like antagonist and an actual storyline. In fact, it’s encouragingly enough like Dora’s Christmas Carol Adventure that one hopes more episodes are like this one than “Doggie Day.”
My biggest gripe about Dora the Explorer is its curious absence of anything resembling a sense of humor. Characters may emit artificial laughs at things in the show, but it is extremely rare to find anything that the audience can really laugh at. There are some encouraging signs on this front as well, with Kate popping up in a dog suit for no apparent reason in the middle of “Doggie Day” while being chased by a pack of the most pleasant feral cats in the world. It’s more bizarre than actually funny, but it’s an encouraging bit of urban weirdness that one hopes for more of, if only to break up the tedium.
There is nothing in Dora and Friends: Into the City that someone might take offense at (except perhaps the most rabid English-only fanatics, who I’m totally OK with offending as deeply as possible). This trait has probably been the one most responsible for Dora’s staying power, but it’s also probably why extremely few adults I’ve ever encountered says they genuinely like the show. Dora and Friends: Into the City may freshen up the look of the show, but sticks with its tried and true formulas more often than not. It’s telling that the most encouraging elements of Dora and Friends: Into the City are the moments that I can’t envision in a typical Dora the Explorer episode, but they’re few and far between enough that I’m not positive what value there is in the new show, other than an opportunity for new merchandise.
Dora and Friends: Into the City premieres Monday, August 18, 2014, at 8:00 PM (ET/PT) on Nickelodeon.