Poor SpongeBob. A highly original fellow who breathes much needed fresh sea air into the stale kiddiesphere, he has faced frequent criticism from one side or another in the war for our children's minds.
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Poor SpongeBob. A highly original fellow who breathes much needed fresh sea air into the stale kiddiesphere, he has faced frequent criticism from one side or another in the war for our children's minds. First, of course, he's been accused both of homosexuality, and of spreading an invidious homosexual agenda (also known as "tolerance"). More recently, he's been criticised for promoting stereotypes of other cultures. And why? Because the Burger King tie-in with SpongeBob's new DVD, Lost in Time, dares to offer a range of toys that includes Mariachi, Sultan, and Samurai SpongeBobs. I'm only surprised that the Cross Dressers Alliance of Provincetown hasn't marched on Bikini Bottom to protest Liberty SpongeBob (the little dude dressed up as Lady Liberty. Then again, drag queens tend to have a sense of humour.
SpongeBob Squarepants - Lost in Time features a double episode special, "Dunces and Dragons", plus a handful of other oft-televised episodes. "Dunces and Dragons" is a gentle spoof of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Following a bizarre jousting accident at Medieval Moments, SpongeBob and Patrick travel back in time to fulfill a prophecy and save King Krab's kingdom from Plankton's tame dragon.
SpongeBob has yet to leap so much as a single shark. His continued success can be attributed directly to the good sense of the show's makers, who've resisted every temptation to mess with their formula. Yes, time travel is a little off the beaten track, even for Bikini Bottom, but all the episodes that make up Lost in Time retain the wild creativity, good-hearted idiocy, and refreshing disinterest in the specifics of popular culture that have been hallmarks of this hapless poriferan's all-ages appeal.
While SpongBob reigns at Nickelodeon, The Jimmy Timmy Power Hour 2: When Nerds Collide combines two of the network's other big players, The Fairly OddParents and The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. And it's precisely the sort of over-embellished content void that SpongeBob has so assiduously eluded. The stylistic contrast between Timmy Turner's two-dimensional Dimmsdale, CA, and Jimmy's 3D Retroville, TX, is amusing at first, but that just about wraps it up for When Nerds Collide. A third crossover between the two shows, The Jimmy Timmy Power Hour 3: The Jerkinators, will air this June as the season finale for both shows. The Fairly OddParents, according to creator Butch Hartman, will not be back next season, which is something of a shame, since its fiercely sarcastic humour puts it head and shoulders above Jimmy Neutron.
Other well-worn tactics for extending a brand are demonstrated by this month's release of Blue's Room - Fred's Birthday and Holly Hobbie & Friends - Surprise Party. In the truly excellent Blue's Clues, Blue is an animated puppy with a curiously engaging bark who uses puzzles, simplicity, and repetition to help your children learn. In Blue's Room, she's an annoying talking puppet designed to merchandise to your children. Blue's shark has been well and truly jumped; the damn dog is starting to hump Mommy's leg.
The lab-coated Holly Hobbie marketing weasels endeavor to exploit a lapsed brand blessed with a valuable legacy of nostalgic goodwill. To this end, they call the star of Holly Hobbie & Friends - Surprise Party the great-granddaughter of the original, give her a couple of appropriately diverse friends, and turn her into the 10-year-old Britney Spears of arts and crafts. Cynical? Yes, but wholesome and worthwhile. Sadly, so wholesome that my captive test audience was turned off within minutes.
Time travel, crossovers, format changes, and generation jumps. Disney has opted this month for a more conventional marketing strategy, the spin-off. Lucky for the company, Dora the Explorer is a powerhouse of a show that's extending its winning formula and franchise with care and success, so check out the growing range of Dora toys at your local Target, and get ready for Diego. No Cousin Oliver he.
Dora's primo Diego, is a little older than her, and his adventures are conveniently aimed at a slightly older age group, so now your children can grow with the brand. Appearing first in the Dora episode, "Meet Diego", and given plenty of screen time in episodes such as "Dora and Diego to the Rescue" (Dora the Explorer - Save the Day), Diego's own series has been a long time coming and Go Diego Go! finally debuted on Nick Jr. in September 2005. Go Diego Go! The Great Dinosaur Rescue is his first DVD.
In "The Great Dinosaur Rescue", Dora joins Diego's regular cast of Baby Jaguar and older sister Alicia (do you see where they're going here?) in a time travel adventure of their own. The plot is your basic Dora scenario. First you find your lost dinosaur, then you return it to its family, practising your rudimentary Spanish as you go. But the songs are more complex and hipper, and the lessons go well beyond colors, shapes, and counting. Retaining the interaction between preschooler and story, Go Diego Go! focuses on problem-solving, movement, ecology, and learning. At the end of each episode, a quiz tests viewers on key points.
Additional episodes on this first Diego DVD include "Rescue of the Red-Eyed Tree Frogs" and "Diego Saves Baby Humpback Whale", in which Diego has to outswim sharks. In a much discussed 2003 episode of Dora, "Star Catcher" (Dora the Explorer - Catch the Stars), her abuela introduced a magic theme, giving Dora a Star Pocket to help her catch a cast of Explorer Stars, each with curious special powers. Many viewers (all of them adults) consider it no coincidence that the plot of "Star Catcher" saw Dora and Boots using Saltador, the jumping star, to leap a whole shiver of animated sharks. Thankfully, Dora continues to thrive despite having jumped her sharks, and Go Diego Go! will only broaden the brand's appeal. Now I wonder what Nickleodeon has planned for Alicia?
My Little Pony is another brand that's made a recent comeback. It seems that one reason for the introduction of a third generation of ponies, the Ponyville Posse, is that Hasbro lost the legal rights to the first generation, the Dream Valley Crips. (The commercial failure of the second generation in 1997 was obviously a factor too.) The current breed, first seen in 2003, obviously has more staying power and now, risking a lawsuit from Disney, Hasbro has introduced a princess motif into the storyline. Typically cutesy, My Little Pony - The Princess Promenade comes with higher production values and all the usual moral lessons for Daddy's Little Princesses everywhere.
Not to be left out, Disney has a new princess offering of its own. Disney Princess Sing Along Songs, Vol. 3 - Perfectly Princess is a collection of songs from sequels, adding Mulan, Pocohontas, and Ella to its ever-expanding all-purpose axis of evil. Further brand exploitation from the pointiest heads in the business comes this month from Quack Pack, Volume 1 and Goof Troop, Volume 1. Even as a child I resisted Mickey Mouse, let alone Donald, Goofy, and their tiresome families, and time has not mellowed me.
Of course, Disney isn't the only company to squeeze its catalog till the pips squeak. The crassest offerings from Nickleodeon are its Picks and Favorites collections. Aimed at gift givers rather than parents, Nick Picks - Volume 3 pulls together eight episodes from Nicktoons shows, including All Grown Up, SpongeBob, and The Fairly OddParents, while Nick Jr. Favorites - Volume 3 offers an episode each of Dora The Explorer ("Meet Diego"), Little Bill, Max And Ruby, Blue's Clues, The Backyardigans, and LazyTown. These last two shows also receive their own dedicated DVD releases this month, both superior to either Nick collection.
The Backyardigans - Cave Party offers four more of this odd animal crew's vibrant adventures, including a party in an ice age cave and a race around the world. As always, music is an important part of the show, specifically calypso and zydeco.
Lazytown is a popular maverick in terms of children's TV. Imported from Iceland, it blends puppetry, live action, and CGI to teach children the importance of healthy eating and exercise. The show's creator and star is Magnús Scheving, who appears to be the most famous living Icelander who isn't Björk, Bobby Fischer or a member of Sigur Rós. He was European Aerobics Champion twice (I'm European, and didn't even know we had such a title). Which is lucky, because the role of Lazytown's resident superhero, Sportacus, requires extensive physical activity.
Sportacus aside, the lead character in Lazytown is eight-year-old Stephanie, played by Julianna Rose Mauriello. The third human character is, of course, the Bad Guy. Played by the excellent, Jim Carey-esque Stefán Karl Stefánssonis, Robbie Rotten is a comic villain in the best Dick Dastardly style. He lives underground and hates to hear children running and playing on his roof, and so most Lazytown episodes focus on his efforts to keep the kids indoors with their junk food, televisions, and PlayStations. Lazytown - Robbie's Greatest Misses brings together four of his most fiendish plots, in one delightfully eccentric package recommended for the preschool potato on anyone's couch.