Dora the Explorer is a really, really hard cartoon to grade. Debuting in 2000, it carries a different aesthetic than the more modern shows reviewed previously, and no doubt influenced many of them. Yet it also comes with its share of shortcomings, despite its popularity.
The setup is pretty simple: Dora and her monkey friend Boots have to solve some kind of problem and an animated map jumps out of her also-animated backpack to give three places they have to go through to solve their quest (which could involve saving somebody or merely making sure a party has decorations). They run into some additional puzzles to solve or characters to interact with (almost always having to get past Swiper the Fox, and more on him later) and ultimately triumph through ingenuity and help from the audience. It’s hardly Shakespearean but it’s a replicable structure that both works for children and set a template for later series.
The best thing about the series is that my son Arius adores it. I find the pacing a bit slow and the characters sometimes annoying, but I know I can set Arius in front of an episode and he’ll be happily engrossed (which is great when I need to do something else around the house). As a bilingual show, it was (still is) far ahead of most other programs in terms of inclusion as well as teaching children English and Spanish. And Dora provides a role model of being helpful and doing the right thing, which is laudable.
Dora the Explorer popularized what is now a staple of countless shows from Bubblies Guppies to Ruff Ruff, Tweet and Dave of asking the audience for its help in selecting between two or more things. That Dora and friends came from 15 years ago when the pacing was a little gentler is reflected in the pauses awaiting a response now seem awkwardly long. At the time, doing what almost nobody else was doing, it likely seemed apt.
The show has its points that can really nettle anybody attempting to apply logic to it. Characters undergo changes in demeanor quickly (usually from adversarial to helpful) and with insufficient buildup. And then there is Swiper the Fox, perhaps the most illogical character on TV.
When Dora encounters Swiper on any given episode, he’s usually trying to steal something important to her quest. But wait, if the characters and the audience say, “Swiper, no swiping” enough times, his plans are thwarted … for some completely unclear reason. (Apparently it’s akin to saying “Beetlejuice,” expect with the inverse reaction.) And if Swiper gets hold of the cherished object, he … throws it somewhere. So Swiper isn’t really into swiping things, he’s really into being a jerk. What’s his motivation? WHY? Hang on, I gotta get up and cool down for a bit …
… OK. Beyond that, there’s the visual and sound of a cursor navigating a screen and the beep of pushing a button that mimics an early computer but also seems a strange thing for a children’s show that doesn’t involve computers. It all made more sense once upon a time, but one wonders if such an anachronism will prove somewhat confusing to kids.
But beyond that small point and the inscrutable mystery that is Swiper’s maddening motivation (or lack thereof), Dora the Explorer has held up well over the year and spawned spinoff series including Go Diego Go and Dora and Friends: Into the City, so its relevance is continuous. And, more significantly, it keeps children enthralled by its adventures.
You’ll like it if: You can overlook some incomprehensible characterizations and sometimes-deliberate pacing to appreciate why it’s entering its second generation of young fans.
Grade: B. It’s not near the top of my list, but Arius loves it, which is more important.