It’s a really good time for pre-schooler TV because more and more programming is breaking from older conventional wisdom that skewed these programs to the kiddie audience and nobody else. Kids may love the likes of Dora the Explorer or Go Diego Go! or Caillou, but I’d think any adult expressing genuine affection for programs like them is either on staff or suffering from prolonged child-induced sleep deprivation. The Hub may be the network that most consistently produces shows equally enjoyable to kids and supervising adults, but the latest offerings from Disney present a formidable challenge to the Hub’s crown. This is quite easily seen in Doc McStuffins, which has just gotten its second DVD release in Time for Your Checkup, as well as in the DVD inaugurating the newest Disney Princess, Sofia the First: Once Upon a Princess.
The title character of Doc McStuffins is a young girl (wonderfully voiced by Kiara Muhammad) who aspires to be a doctor like her mommy, practicing on the menagerie of toys that live in her room and belong to her friends. Doc’s toy stethoscope brings the toys to life so they can describe their symptoms and get a diagnosis and cure from Doc through singing, cuddles, observation, and new entries in the Big Book of Boo-Boos. Four toys are regulars: Lambie the cuddling lamb, Stuffy the brave dragon, Chilly the hypochondriac snowman, and Hillie the nurse. It’s a simple setup that is incredibly charming and appealing to both kids and adults. As a wise man of TV once said, “if you’re not careful, you might learn something before the show’s done,” as the toys’ afflictions and Doc’s cures are spins on genuinely good medical advice, like sleeping enough at night, staying hydrated during summertime play, washing your hands, and not eating too much.
Each episode is split into two 10-minute stories, each of which is a marvel of efficiency in how they set up and then solve their problems without feeling rushed or artificial. They are also occasionally poignant, as when Gaby the giraffe sings a heartbreaking song about being a toy nobody wants in “Arcade Escapade” (which is definitely one of the best episodes on this disc). Doc is also black, and the most remarkable thing about that is how unremarkable it is in the context of the show. I think it’s fantastic that the show inspired a group of female African-American doctors to express their love of the show with a “We Are Doc McStuffins” collage, which snowballed into the Artemis Medical Society and several PSAs during this past Black History Month, but I think it’s equally fantastic that the show is absolutely as accessible and appealing to people without that same personal connection to Doc.
The Disney Princesses come with a bit more pop culture baggage than doctors, both good and bad, but the premiere movie of Sofia the First is much more enjoyable than I was expecting it to be. The lead character (voiced by the astonishingly talented Ariel Winter) goes from rags to riches as her mother marries the king of the land, which makes young Sofia the newest princess to the land of Enchancia and the newest stepsister to Prince James and Princess Amber. Learning how to be a Princess turns out to be a lot harder than Sofia expected, even with the help of Fairy Godmothers Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather from Sleeping Beauty, who are the headmistresses of the Royal Preparatory Academy. Unknown to all, the court sorcerer Cedric has designs on the throne (and the magical amulet Sofia wears which grants her the ability to talk to animals), and is fortunately as incompetent as he is ambitious. Amber serves as a second foil to Sofia, with her mix of snobbery and jealousy placing her at odds with Sofia until a genuinely heartwarming turn of affairs in the climactic scenes of the movie.
As much as I like Disney’s Mickey Mouse Clubhouse or Jake and the Never Land Pirates, both shows still occasionally resort to the Dora the Explorer “pause,” where the characters stop the show dead to ask the audience a question and wait patiently for a response. It’s a definite plus to Doc McStuffins and Sofia the First that both have dispensed with “the pause” entirely, preferring to communicate their moral and social lessons through the story rather than by trying to turn a TV show into a video game. I also like the CGI animation on both shows, even if the deliberately flattened look of Sofia the First makes me think the show could and should have been done in hand-drawn animation. Finally, both shows neatly avoid being “girl’s shows” in having a much broader appeal than they have to. I think the Princess link will make Sofia the First a harder sell than it should be to boys, since it’s just as appealing to all audiences as the best of the “Princess” movies like Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. There is also as much crossover appeal in Doc McStuffins as there is in the Hub’s My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
Both Doc McStuffins: Time for Your Checkup and Sofia the First: Once Upon a Princess look terrific on DVD in anamorphic widescreen that are both quite good. Unfortunately, neither disc comes with any extras, which makes the relatively high retail price for these discs a slightly harder sell than they need to be, especially the relatively short Sofia the First that’s barely a third the length of Doc McStuffins.
Disney executives have said their pre-school strategy is to be more about entertainment than about education, but the best thing about Doc McStuffins and Sofia the First is that both shows balance education with entertainment so beautifully. The adamantly anti-Princess will no doubt still have issues with Sofia the First even with its tweaks and concessions to modern sensibilities. Luckily, Doc McStuffins very nicely serves perhaps the quintessential anti-Princess show, with its smart lead character who’s an aspiring professional while also being a very credible little girl.