In a lot of TV and movies (for kids and adults alike), something with a male lead character is assumed to be “for all audiences,” but something with a female lead character is “for girls.” Kids cartoons “for girls” also don’t seem to have evolved much from the cartoons Lauren Faust described to Ms. magazine as the anti-pattern for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Amazon Prime’s latest pre-school series Wishenpoof approaches the problem from a different angle: while its pastel color palette and fairy wings immediately suggest that it’s consciously targeted to girls, it pulls a bait-and-switch with sensibilities that fits closer to the all-audiences mold. And, pondering that, I understand why this is unusual even as I wish it weren’t.
Wishenpoof is the latest creation of Angela Santomero, and has Redefining Girly author Melissa Wardy and Families and Work Institute co-founder and author Ellen Galinsky credited as advisors along with the educational consultants that are de rigeur for all pre-school shows these days. The lead of the show is Bianca, the young daughter of a fairy mother and a normal father who has inherited her mother’s abilities for magic. The show splits its stories between Bianca’s magical homeworld and her regular-world kindergarten, with most episodes emphasizing the value of persistence, hard work, creative thinking, determination, and playing well with others in overcoming day-to-day challenges. Those challenges range from the school’s obstacle course to a conflict between magical kids in how to play together, but Bianca is never able to just “poof” her problems away with her magic no matter which realm she’s in.
The most unusual thing about Wishenpoof is that it’s not all that unusual. Wishenpoof feels a lot like Angela Santomero’s Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, except with a female magical fairy as its lead rather than a male tiger, and the stiffest criticism for it I can muster is that it feels a little too familiar and doesn’t have quite the same quirky appeal as a show like Creative Galaxy. This is criticism of the mildest sort, since Wishenpoof and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood are both equally endearing and well-made shows. However, the fact that a show with a female lead can feel so familiar is exactly what makes Wishenpoof remarkable. Bianca is a vehicle for the same messages that show up in any number of pre-school kids shows, except that the leads in those other shows are almost universally male, or entirely gender neutered. Bianca looks and acts like lots of girls her age, but the show uses her as a vehicle to send the same messages that normally end up on the “boy” shows. Kids of all genders would do well to learn a bit from Bianca, and more boys probably should. On one hand, it’s a little sad that it’s novel to have a girl in a TV show valuing self-reliance rather than relying on boys for anything. On the other hand, you have to start somewhere. Like a lot of Amazon Prime’s offerings, I suspect Wishenpoof wouldn’t ever have made it to the air in its current form on any non-public TV network.
The usual gender molds for kids cartoons is slowly changing, with shows like Hasbro’s My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra, and Disney’s Tinker Bell and Star vs. the Forces of Evil showing that there’s as many ways to be a girl as there are ways to be a boy in all the other shows on TV (while The Hunger Games is doing the same in live-action). Wishenpoof is breaking some new ground with that sensibility for the pre-school set, and it deserves some attention for that if nothing else.
Wishenpoof premieres for streaming on August 14, 2015, on Amazon Prime.
Like the books the show is based on, the best thing about DreamWorks Animation’s new series Dinotrux is the inventive design of the truck/dinosaur hybrids that populate its world. I suspect author Chris Gall had a similar ephiphany as the creators of Dinosaur Train: if kids love trucks and kids love dinosaurs, then dinosaurs made of truck parts would be the most awesomest thing EVER.
The series expands on the books (which were optioned even before they were published), setting the series in the pre-human Mechazoic era and focusing on a giant Tyrannosaurus Trux named Ty-Rux. Ty is friendly and harmless, but entirely misunderstood by the other Dinotrux around him, who flee in terror whenever they see him coming. In hindsight, this is a bit odd since the show takes pains to show that he doesn’t eat other Dinotrux, so the predator-prey dynamic of normal dinosaurs doesn’t seem to exist in this world. But whatever. They’re dinosaurs made of truck parts and I’m still enough of a little boy to grasp how this is the Most Awesomest Thing EVER.
In the premiere episode “Ty and Revvit,” an erupting volcano drives Ty from his old home, sending him with a damaged tread to a lush crater that looks like paradise. Unfortunately, this paradise is dominated by the bully D-Structs, an even bigger Tyrannosaurus Trux that doesn’t like sharing. A chance encounter with a tiny Reptool named Revvit leads to a fixed tread for Ty, along with a new and extremely unconventional friendship. However, his success with Revvit injects the idea of teamwork into Ty’s head, and soon he’s out trying to recruit other Dinotrux allies to stand up to D-Structs.
If the story in “Ty and Revvit” is not terribly original, it’s executed with enough gentle charm to forgive the numerous repeated lines and occasionally too on-the-nose exposition. It’s also true that the picture books that the series is based on are pretty thin story-wise, focusing on the amusing results when you mash up dinosaurs and trucks and give them names like “Dumplodicus” or “Velocitractor.” The series creators had to stretch to get a plot big enough to sustain an entire series, and the setup is plausible enough to establish Ty, Revvit, and three more Dinotrux (the kind Craneosaur Skya, the grumpy Dozeratops Dozer, and the skate rat Ankylodump Ton-Ton), along with the scenario and a potential recurring antagonist. As mentioned, the best thing about the series is the design of the creatures in it, which inventively turn Chris Gall’s illustrated Dinotrux into almost plausible creatures while celebrating what makes them entertainingly ridiculous. I especially love the design of Revvit, whose drill bit dorsal spines and measuring tape tongue are wonderfully creative ways to use human tools to mimic something living.
In light of Wishenpoof, I am left wondering why Skya is the only girl in the crowd of five (six if you count D-Structs). Any of the characters could have been female without modification, since there’s not much to suggest gender other than the voice actors and the roles are generic enough that gender really shouldn’t have figured into casting. This is a small but niggling quibble, though: Dinotrux aims to please its target audience and hits almost exactly on the mark.
Dinotrux premieres for streaming on August 14, 2015, on Netflix.
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