Pre-School Review Roundup: "Chuck and Friends," "Dinosaur Train," "Dora the Explorer"
The best way to counter criticism that your merchandise-based TV show is nothing but a glorified TV commercial is to do a really, really good show. The Hub Network seems to understand this, with an exceptionally strong early lineup of animated programs from the expected successes of the Transformers and G.I. Joe reboots to the surprisingly positive reception to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The pre-schooler show The Adventures of Chuck and Friends is another show I’m happy to add to the Hub’s list of successes, based on the 10 episodes available on the first DVD of the show from Shout! Factory, Friends to the Finish.
In this CGI animated TV show, Chuck is the ringleader of a crowd of juvenile vehicles, and like most pre-schooler programming, each 10-minute episode has Chuck and his friends learning a lesson by the end. Most of these lessons involve the usual socialization skills that most pre-schooler shows fall back on, but these are all quite well-done. The average episodes are fun, bright, colorful, and eminently watchable for kids and adults alike, but there are a few real standouts. “Game On” has Chuck and his friends getting obsessed with a video game, but then running outside to expand their play once they’ve finished all the available levels of the game. “Vertie’s Stunt School” is an exceptionally well-executed parable on the virtues of perseverance and practice, as Chuck learns that even an extreme sports celebrity truck has to practice and flubs his new tricks a few dozen times before he can get them right. I’m most impressed at how the episode is able to communicate the monotony of Chuck’s practice without becoming repetitive or monotonous itself, and there’s a nice payoff when Chuck pulls off his big stunt in front of a large audience while his friends (who slacked off) fall on their faces.
My favorite episode on this disc is “Need for Speed,” where Chuck and his friends try to make their homemade toy truck go faster and farther for a race against an arrogant new kid and his store-bought motorized truck. I loved the lessons in basic physics along the way, and how Chuck beats the new kid but still reaches out to him to share what he learned to make the store-bought toy truck go faster, too. If Chuck and Friends does open itself up to accusations of being a glorified toy commercial, I have to say that an episode that says homemade toys can be as much or more fun than store-bought ones has got to be the worst toy commercial ever made. It definitely makes for some good TV, though. The Adventures of Chuck and Friends may not quite be the kind of TV that adults will seek out on their own and watch without kids, but it comes pretty close pretty often.
Friends to the Finish is in anamorphic widescreen and has a stereo soundtrack, so it looks and sounds great. The disc runs about 110 minutes, which is quite a bit longer than the average attention span among the target audience, but which means the adults can mix-and-match episodes and not end up watching the same handful over and over and over again. Selecting specific episodes does not start a new one, which also makes it a bit easier to control how much TV the kids are watching in one sitting. There are generous chapter stops within each episode, meaning you can skip the opening and closing credits and even jump to the half-way point in each episode. The disc contains no extras other than a coloring sheet printed on the back of the DVD box label.
The blurb on the back of Dinosaur Train: Eggstravaganza confirms something I had always suspected about the show: it really is based on the idea that since kids love dinosaurs and kids love trains, then a show about dinosaurs riding trains should be the most awesomest thing EVER. I don’t think it is quite the most awesomest thing ever, but it is a solid and well-done show that also lands solidly as kidvid that adults can easily enjoy along with their kids. This CGI show from the Jim Henson Company is a bit more obviously educational than The Adventures of Chuck and Friends, with a focus on natural sciences in general and dinosaurs in particular. This does mean that an episode will stop dead occasionally so someone can explain something about dinosaur biology or behavior in detail, but, you know, it’s about dinosaurs so I don’t think most kids will really mind all that much.
The kids of the Pteranadon family form the core of Dinosaur Train: Shiny, Tiny, Don, and their adopted T-Rex brother Buddy. The family often rides the titular train to their adventures, complete with a “Time Tunnel” to allow these Cretaceous creatures to visit other eras of the Pleistocene epoch, and there really is no point in delving further into the hows and whys. It’s a show about dinosaurs riding trains, most awesomest thing EVER, etc. At the very least, Eggstravaganza sticks to its theme of dinosaurs and their parents, which is more than I can say for some other themed pre-schooler DVDs. There are also occasional “kid socialization lesson” episodes like “Tank’s Baby Brother” (where a triceratops has to learn how to adapt to his new baby brother, and the Pteranadon kids learn that ought to make sure their friend doesn’t feel neglected) or “All Kinds of Families” (where the family visits another family with an adopted child after Buddy expresses some frustration that he’s different from his brother and sisters). There are also flashes of the subversive sense of humor that the Jim Henson company is renowned for, but only flashes and just enough to keep the attention of the adults watching.
Dinosaur Train: Eggstravaganza presents all episodes in anamorphic widescreen with a stereo soundtrack. Eggstravaganza does better than Friends to the Finish for extras but worse as TV on DVD. Bonuses include all the live-action “Dr. Scott” sequences, where the show’s advising paleontologist explains the real theories behind events in the show, along with a game, printable coloring pages, and a dinosaur reference guide. However, there are no chapter breaks anywhere in an episode, leaving you to fast-forward through the opening credits if you don’t feel like watching them for the fourth or fifth time.
Dora’s Easter Adventure packs another four episodes of Nickelodeon’s hit show onto DVD, including the double-length title episode that has Dora trying to help the Easter Bunny (now given a modern upgrade to become the Hip-Hop Bunny) find his Easter Eggs after Swiper the Fox steals them. I was mildly amused by the Hip-Hop Bunny, although it was mostly at how tragically unhip he is. Otherwise this DVD is exactly the same Dora experience as any of her other DVDs. It should appeal just fine to any of her legions of very young fans, even though the appeal of the show still escapes me. Like all the other Dora DVDs, this disc is in full-frame stereo with an autoplay feature and no chapter breaks within episodes. Other bonus features include an interactive play mode and 5 karaoke music videos.