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‘Wonder Pets!’ to the rescue

Times Staff Writer

And here comes “The Wonder Pets!,” premiering today on Nickelodeon’s preschool programming block, Nick Jr. (regular daytime airings begin Monday), in which a guinea pig, a duckling and a turtle, who live together in a little red schoolhouse, become superheroes after the children go home, traveling the world to save imperiled baby animals.

Readers already au fait with Nick Jr. will see a resemblance to “Go, Diego, Go!,” in which Dora the Explorer’s 8-year-old cousin travels the Latin American world to save imperiled baby animals, accompanied by a baby jaguar, a talking camera and a magic bag. But surely there is room in this world for two saving-imperiled-baby-animals shows. There is enough room on Nickelodeon, at any rate.

In any case, the shows are more different than alike. Indeed, there is nothing quite like “The Wonder Pets!,” billed as “TV’s first mini-operetta for preschoolers,” a description with which I do not plan to argue.

“The phone! The phone is ringing!” are the first words we hear in the first episode, and you must imagine them sung with all the thrilling urgency of the Valkyries careening down from Valhalla. The phone is of the tin can variety, and through it the Wonder Pets are alerted to an animal in trouble: a baby dolphin, in this first instance, trapped in a net! (“She’s all tied up / And she’s all wet!”). Music, played by a real orchestra, runs throughout the show, though the animals speak as well as sing -- it’s a singspiel, just like “The Magic Flute.”

Animated in a collage style that its makers call “photo-puppetry” -- though as far as I can tell no actual puppetry is involved -- it has a bright, whimsical, storybook-come-to-life look not wholly unrelated to the funny greeting cards you can buy at my vets that show animals acting like people. It should appeal to viewers of any age who enjoy ducklings, turtles and guinea pigs and have a tolerance for formula and repetition.

The three heroes are meant, according to the paper before me, to represent different stages of childhood development, with 5-year-old Linny the Guinea Pig the most advanced -- he knows things like “Chimps are like monkeys, but they’re smarter” -- and Ming-Ming Duckling the youngest at 3, although I’ve never heard of a 3-year-old attempting a capsule-to-capsule rescue of a drifting space monkey, as she does in the group’s second adventure. Ming Ming’s extreme youth is demonstrated mainly by how she says “w” sounds for “r,” as in “She’s twapped.” It’s not just hella cute, as the kids say, it’s hella-kitty cute.

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The show does not get into the politics of drift-net fishing or just what that chimp was doing in that drifting capsule, other than “to help people learn about space” or why those people would just abandon him to the coldness of the interstellar void. Some of these perilous situations may make young children and sensitive adults slightly anxious. But tense moments are quickly relieved by a musical shift to a hopeful major key, as if to say, “All will be well.” There will be time later to learn the truth.

In future episodes, the Wonder Pets will save a baby pigeon, a puppy, a kitten, a baby owl, a baby squirrel, a baby penguin and, ranging a little further afield, into the impossible -- or, I should say, into the even more impossible -- a baby unicorn, baby triceratops, one of Santa’s reindeer and the Three Little Pigs. It’s not so much about the plight of actual animals, then, as it is about saving helpless babies, whom the Wonder Pets will reunite with their families before returning to the schoolhouse, doffing their caps and capes, and settling down for a little celery.

Created by “Sesame Street” veteran Josh Selig (creator also of “Oobi”), the show’s main lesson is really teamwork: “We’re not too big / And we’re not too tough,” runs its theme, “But when we work together / We’ve got the right stuff.” A problem the Wonder Pets have to solve before leaving the classroom will later be echoed during the rescue, and dang if I didn’t feel just a little proud to work that one out.


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