Kid-Tested, Dino-Approved

Published: October 1, 2009
Categories: Reviews

Lets say, hypothetically, that youve got problems at home. You have a little Girl Who Likes Dinosaurs, facing off every morning with your little Boy Who Likes Trains. They do nothing but fight over what to play, because she’s only interested in DinoPark and he only cares for his Thomas PVCs.

Fortunately for you, the Jim Henson Company has devised a solution: television! More specifically, Dinosaur Train, the first show designed to bring together children with diverse interests by catering to dinosaur and train aficionados alike. Finally, a little peace and quiet after breakfast.

In fact, Dinosaur Train, which debuted in September, revels in diversity. Although you may look different, enjoy unusual talents and pastimes, and eat a diet that should almost certainly include your siblings, Dinosaur Train promises that you and your natural enemies can live together in harmony. The show stars three baby Pteranodons — Shiny, Tiny, and Don — and their brother Buddy, a Tyrannosaurus who just happened to hatch in their nest alongside them. And until Buddy inevitably succumbs to the call of the wild, the foursome has set out to explore the Mesozoic together.

These explorations involve the chums embracing new differences (Buddy’s a better tracker, but Tiny can hide in crawl spaces), and itching to learn more about a particular dinosaur in each episode — the fastest one, the largest one, or that thing with feathers. Invariably, intellectual curiosity leads the gang to– wait for it– the Dinosaur Train! The kids will chat with the Barney Fife-like conductor before stepping off to visit with Mrs. Velociraptor or Mrs. Argentinosaurus (somehow it’s usually the mom) and her child, play a few games, learn a bit of dino-trivia, and take the train home. Enter the live action paleontologist Dr. Scott and a gaggle of human children to elaborate on a couple of details, plus a businesslike fellow in a fedora popping in with downers such as, “Point of fact: Dinosaurs did not put on fashion shows.” Rinse and repeat.

The show gives kiddie and adult viewers plenty to enjoy. We get catchy songs and off-the-cuff rhymes (check out the teacher guide and video page for the rockabilly theme song and further treats) along with a kicky score, sparkling views of the Pteranodon familys seaside nest, and a fully fleshed-out cast. Buddy and Tiny, clearly the stars, find non-irritating ways to conduct their investigations, using the word “hypothesis” at least once per episode. Shiny acts and talks uncannily like Lucy van Pelt. And Don may be a bit slow on the uptake, but his habit of collecting odd curiosities and his affinity for spontaneous silly dances have thoroughly won my heart.

Dinosaur Train-watching only becomes harrowing if you expect a logical, feasible story about plausible characters set in a fact-based environment. I can accept the idea of a family of friendly, talking cretaceans, and even their vaguely anthropomorphic games like Dinosuar Hopscotch and Dinoball. Matters start to get sticky, though, when the show’s double agenda of depicting a relatively peaceful society, as well as some degree of scientific accuracy, necessarily undermines itself.

Countless creatures on the show — from Troodons to frogs — exchange lighthearted chit-chat with our heroes, who could easily start eating them, or each other, any minute. To learn a species’ full rap sheet we need the basics: How many football fields long, and elephants heavy, is it? Is this creature a carnivore, omnivore, or herbivore (or more specifically, a fish-hunter like the Pteranodons)? Rather than avoiding the subject of food, Dinosaur Train jumps through hoops to address it. To get around potential ickiness, the fish on the show conveniently don’t talk, and Tyrannosaurs’ favorite dish is the shadily procured “carrion,” an ambiguous pile of bones and viscous red goo. Could Shiny’s elderly Aunt Cloise have gotten mixed in there? Too late now.

Another device that fits the show’s storytelling methods, as well as my penchant for finding loopholes, is the way each species occupies its own corner of this veritable zoo. Valerie the raptor can only leave Velociraptor Valley by taking the Dinosaur Train through a Time Tunnel (even traveling within one’s own time period always incurs a Time Tunnel, and probably a Time Tunnel Toll). Why doesn’t traveling back to the Triassic ever disrupt the space-time continuum? More pressingly, why can’t multiple species coexist on the same soil? What kind of scientific authenticity, not to mention healthy social model, is this? It’s as though the U.N. sat down and laid out its very own prehistoric partition plan, so that Pteranodon Terrace wouldn’t include enough T-rexes to constitute a majority voting block.

I ask this as though 3-6 year olds really give a hoot, and they surely don’t. In the Dinosaur Train universe, relationships between the characters carry far more weight than their place on the food chain. In my favorite episode so far, Dolores Tyrannosaurus and her daughter Annie stop by for a visit, with mauling nowhere on their agenda. Buddy enjoys sharing his T-Rex talents with Annie so thoroughly that Tiny, feeling unneeded, sulks off on her own; Buddy wins Tiny back by reminding her that as siblings and best friends, they have far more commonalities than differences — and therein lies the true charm of Dinosaur Train. In episodes to come, Dolores and Annie will welcome our adventurers into Rexville as equals, and meanwhile I’ll welcome them all equally into my living room.

Click here to discuss Dinosaur Train on the ToughPigs forum!

by Michal Richardson

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