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"Dora" and "Diego": Double the Trouble, Half the Fun

by on October 9, 2009

My colleague Ed Liu has apparently exhausted himself looking after the Dora and Diego franchises for Toon Zone, and so falls to me the job of finding six hundred words—Any words! Not excluding “abalone” and “metonymy,” if I can find a place for them—that can be applied to the latest DVD offerings to star Nickelodeon’s uber-popular educational urchins.

Of course, Dora Saves the Crystal Kingdom and Diego’s Arctic Rescue are entirely critic-proof. Those who watch these shows do not read reviews, and those who might read these reviews don’t watch the show. At best, I might influence a parent or two who wonder whether they can in good conscience use these DVDs as baby-sitters.

To that I say, Why the hell not? It’s not like you’d be hiring John Wayne Gacy to entertain at a kids’ party.

Mostly, Dora and Diego, like the similar Little Einsteins, impress me with their blandness, their enervation, and their lack of imagination. Each story episode is framed around a simple little quest, which can only be solved by surmounting a series of equally simple problems. These are usually no more complicated than “What can we use to catch the horse: a rope, a book, or a telephone?” Dora (or Diego) will then look expectantly at the viewer, who is supposed to give the correct answer. Sometimes the show will try to get the viewer active, encouraging him or her to shout a catch phrase or to jump or wave their arms about.

Frankly, I think there’s something borderline sinful about using such dopey tactics to teach dumb little lessons. Never mind whether it works pedagogically: childhood is a magical time, when the imagination is raw and unformed. Parents terrified of feeding their progeny anything more flavorful than boiled carrots may find comfort in Dora’s placid visage. Me, I find my mind drifting back classic Sesame Street short cartoons, with their sometimes weird, dream-like imagery. Maybe I didn’t need to have the letter “D” tamped into me quite so hard and insistently, but I’d like to think that my imagination was a little richer for being exposed to something so much more stylish than Dora.

Aside the artistic style—and Sesame Street could feature animation that is much, much better than what Nick shows—the stories in Dora and Diego are impoverished. There is no wit, no surprise, no drama to the adventures. I’m not asking for The Wizard of Oz, or Alice in Wonderland or The Hobbit. But if you are going to teach children about problem-solving strategies, wouldn’t it be a good idea to cast your story itself as a problem-solving exercise, instead of just a sequence of simplistic puzzles?

The special, extended episode that headlines Dora Saves the Crystal Kingdom at least has something like this, and even boasts a nifty Matryoshka narrative structure: In her storybook, Dora finds a story about a greedy king who steals some magic crystals and hides them inside other stories in her storybook. Another character in that story jumps out of the book itself, and with Dora’s help jumps back into those other stories and tracks the stolen crystals down. It is, alas, betrayed by its bland execution. There is something wonderful in the idea of fictional characters moving into the real world, and skipping from one story into another: Jasper Fforde, for instance, certainly has fun with the conceit in his “Thursday Next” novels. But Dora is so unflappable that the mad premise hardly registers.

At least it’s still better than Diego’s Arctic Rescue, in which Dora’s boyish counterpart rescues some polar bear cubs from a fate worse than drilling in a protected wilderness. Frankly, I defy any wide-awake person over the age of consent to watch Diego cavorting with the friendly polar bears and not secretly root for him to suffer Timothy Treadwell’s fate.

Each of the DVDs is headlined by an extended episode, and comes with other episodes from their respective TV series.

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