There’s a lot of talk in the news lately about how to provide high-quality pre-K education for all kids in America. It’s something I can get behind in principle, and I’m not being completely facetious in saying we should ensure that audience gets quality cartoons as part of that initiative. Given recommendations on how much time (if any) very young kids should be spending in front of screens, combined with the reality that very young kids have more and more screens to spend time in front of whether parents like it or not, and you get the combined truths that cartoons for very young kids really have to be great while also having at least some redeeming social or educational value to them. Fortunately, there have been a rash of really great cartoons for this audience of late, and I’m happy to say that Wallykazam! looks like it’s set to jump into that higher tier of shows, based on the first two episodes provided by Nickelodeon.
The title character of Wallykazam! is a boisterous six-year old troll with a playful pet dragon named Norville and a magic stick that turns words into their real-life equivalents. Say “sandwich,” wave the wand, and get your favorite hoagie for lunch. Right off the bat, the show’s pitch line means kids get a nice visual reinforcement that words represent things, which is a non-trivial hurdle to get over for young kids, along with the subtle hint that words can be magic. Not bad for a pre-school literacy show before you even get to the fact that the cartoon is infectiously fun. The structure allows Wally to engage in assorted comic mayhem where coming up with appropriate magic words will solve the obstacles before him (and it’s hard not to notice the subtle reinforcement that “words have power” there). Each episode gets a central problem to solve and a sound/letter combination that Wally has to use for his magic words. In “Naptime for Borgelorp,” Wally has to get his friend’s pet Borgalorp to take a nap using words that start with “s” sounds, while a misunderstanding in “Castle Caper” means Wally and friends have to evict the show’s designated spoiler, the mischievous Bob Goblin, from a castle using words that begin with “c.” I was impressed by the way the latter episode made sure to point out that even though “king” started with the right “cuh” sound, it wasn’t a magic word because it started with the wrong letter. That, in turn, quickly sets up a chance for a kid to figure out the correct magic word that can solve the problem. I’m also happy to note that Nickelodeon seems to be dispensing with “the pause,” pioneered by Dora the Explorer as a way to get kids more engaged with the screen but which always felt more like talking down to the audience. There are moments when Wally will stop and ask the audience a question, but they aren’t as egregious as Dora can be in the worst cases.
One of my favorite things about Wallykazam! is that it doesn’t forget to be funny. A lot of pre-school shows seem determined to file down all the rough edges and cover up anything that might be even remotely harmful or controversial, and a sense of humor seems to be one of the first things that gets excised as a result. Wallykazam! seem intent on tossing out something entertainingly silly right from its opening scenes, like Wally and Norville zipping around in a giant flying slipper because…well, who cares? I admit I got a big laugh when Wally’s magic “Stop!” hit the wrong target, leading first to a perfectly timed comedic face-plant for Bobgoblin, followed by an inordinately amusing aside when Wally passes by on Norville’s back and says, “That’s not who I meant to stop.” It’s the kind of gag that’s dumb in print but funny in action, and the sort of thing Tex Avery would pull off effortlessly in his classic cartoons (and I don’t make that comparison lightly). The show is also willing to play games with the words themselves, as when Gina Giant suggests a lengthy, complicated word like “symphony” to solve a problem and then nods to Wally and the audience saying, “It’s a giant word.” I’m not sure how many kids in the target audience are going to catch the double-meaning in the line, but the play on words seems like the kind of thing aimed more at the supervising adults than the kids.
Which, I suppose, is as good a point as any to say that Wallykazam! falls on the upper-end of my kidvid scale, where the low-end shows are only watchable by the target audience (Caillou, Barney the Dinosaur, or Dora the Explorer) and the high-end shows are ones that grown-ups will watch without having a kid around (Sesame Street or Yo Gabba Gabba!). Wallykazam! creator Adam Peltzman has his name attached to a bunch of shows that fall in the upper mid-range of that continuum, like The Backyardigans, Blue’s Clues, and The Octonauts: a grown up might not actively seek them out without a child but where they’ll be more than happy to sit and watch along with the kids because they’ll get something out of the experience over and above time spent together. There’s more and more of those kinds of shows coming out lately (nearly everything on the Hub’s Hubbub block and Disney’s Doc McStuffins and Jake and the Never Land Pirates), and I’m glad to see Wallykazam! join their company. We can’t have enough good cartoons for younger kids, ya know. How else are we going to indoctrinate the next generation of fans?
Wallykazam! premieres on Nickelodeon on February 3, 2014, at 1:00 PM (ET/PT)