Dora Marquez, as the pint-sized global superstar herself might say, has gotten muy grande.
The beloved cartoon character first walked her tiny feet into the hearts of children 14 years ago with the premiere of “Dora the Explorer” as part of Nickelodeon’s preschool programming block. Save for a few glimpses of her future self in a couple of TV specials and a doll, Dora has barely looked a day older than 7 in her run of 200 episodes.
Now, a new look is coming to the old favorite in a very big way.
“Dora and Friends: Into the City,” a spinoff of sorts to “Dora the Explorer,” launches Monday on Nickelodeon. The bilingual tot with the unmistakable bangs is looking more akin to a 10-year-old. She is taller, her hair longer, her wardrobe less boxy. She has ears and eyebrows.
It’s a risky move for the Viacom-owned cable network to change such a cherished character. But her maturation allows Nickelodeon to expand the Dora franchise (including the “Go, Diego, Go!” spinoff) even further while keeping “Dora the Explorer” alive. And it lands as the network carries ratings momentum with its preschool programming after being challenged last year by Disney’s newly formed kiddie channel Disney Junior.
Nickelodeon stands as the ruler of the sandbox, with four of the top five preschool programs, according to Nielsen Co. Only PBS’ “Curious George” at No. 2 has been able to crack that list. Despite being an oldie, “Dora the Explorer” is still kicking, ranking No. 6. The program that averaged 2 million viewers when it launched still commands 1.4 million viewers, according to Nielsen, and she remains a lucrative franchise with $13 billion in retail sales.
Teri Weiss, Nickelodeon’s executive vice president of preschool programming, pointed to Dora’s longevity and global appeal as indicative of why the gamble was worth taking.
“Aging-up a cartoon, especially one kids are so protective of, is not something you can necessarily do with every series,” Weiss said. “I think that because she has a continuous appeal to new generations of Dora fans, it seemed like the type of property that if we were going to do this sort of extension, this sort of growing-up move, it would be the one to go with. In some ways, that protectiveness is our safety net.”
Despite her preteen look, the older Dora is not necessarily intended for older kids. The show’s target audience, much like “Dora the Explorer,” is the preschool set of 2- to 5-year-olds. Older Dora is meant as a companion piece — an aspirational figure to little ones — according to creators Chris Gifford and Valerie Walsh Valdes, who also were behind the original show.
Gone are the rain forest and Dora’s trusty sidekick, Boots the monkey. The aged-up Dora takes on city life and is in a school where she has human friends who take part in real-life and magical adventures. She’s armed with a magical charm bracelet, and in a true sign of the times, her dependable Map has been upgraded to a Map app on her phone. Music is also a heavy player in the new series.
The Latina heroine still seeks the participation of viewers and continues to mix in Spanish words, but she is presenting curriculum that is aimed slightly older and is dealing with themes such as community service and friendship skills.
“It’s been great for us to think about modeling friendship skills,” Walsh Valdes said. “There has been so much attention now to how kids are getting along. Bullying has become such a large issue.... There’s this whole life that Dora has now as part of a peer group that we can really exploit to come up with great, unique stories that we can’t really explore in the other series.”
Gifford maintains that older Dora still has the moxie that her young admirers have come to appreciate.
“She’s still our girl,” Gifford said. “And it’s still a heroes’ journey, but there are many more reversals and twists and turns and surprises. After doing eight seasons of ‘Dora the Explorer’ and four of ‘Go, Diego, Go!’ it was nice to do something that was a little more narratively driven, character driven.”
Nickelodeon’s approach to the evolution of Dora is unique and worth noting, said Sandra L Calvert, director of the Children’s Digital Media Center at Georgetown University.
“Kids become so attached and develop intense relationships with characters when they’re young,” she said. “And then they outgrow them because animated characters often don’t age up, but children do. So children, in essence, break up with characters. Older Dora could allow for a longer-lasting relationship. It’ll be interesting to see how long kids will stick with her now.”
The idea to have Dora mature, albeit it modestly, has been explored before. Viewers got a glimpse of a less polished older Dora in the 2009 holiday special “Dora’s Christmas Carol Adventure.” Also in 2009, in the “Dora’s Explorer Girls” special, viewers met a preteen Dora — whose look was the basis for this version — as she experienced her first concert. To promote the special, Nickelodeon teamed with Mattel to create a preteen Dora doll with new friends called the Dora Links Dolls, which initially generated concern about what an older Dora would look like.
“I totally understand why the parents are so protective of Dora,” Walsh Valdes said. “She will continue to be a great role model for kids. And that won’t change with this new show. I guarantee it.”
Older Dora also will likely remain a money maker. To coincide with the expansion, Nickelodeon teamed with Fisher-Price to release interactive dolls, play sets and accessories that launched this month. Nickelodeon has signed more than 130 new licenses across apparel, publishing, home goods, electronics and other products for fall and early 2015.
And, who knows? It could lead to a teenage Dora, a twentysomething Dora — eh, not so fast, Weiss said.
“We’re kind of taking it one step at a time, but we are hopeful this show will really connect with kids,” she said. “We spent 14 years making ‘Dora the Explorer.’ Wouldn’t it be fantastic to spend 14 years making ‘Dora and Friends’? So maybe in maybe in 14 years, we’ll check back in with her.”