The Disney Channel programming block formerly known as Playhouse Disney and now rebranded as Disney Junior, to what imagined benefit I don't know, fires off its first new cartoon Monday, "Jake and the Never Land Pirates." A "Peter Pan"-derived series for the 2-to-7 set that features neither the willful Peter nor his jealous pal Tinkerbell (busy with her own DVD franchise), it offers instead a trio of multicolored yet deracinated small fry whose tropical playtime is repeatedly interrupted by the meddlesome Captain Hook (voice of Corey Burton, channeling Hook 1, Hans Conried).
"Peter Pan" is the first movie I was ever taken to see, and it is family lore that in the lobby of the theater I dug in my heels, telling the world, "I don't want to see Captain Hook." In the Disney Junior version, he has been laundered — reasonably enough, yet sadly as well — into a shell of his former self, too silly to be frightening, not even a decent bully, just a kind of (much) older boy who wants to steal your toys.
Like "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse," with whom it shares some key creative personnel, "Jake" presents itself as being not just good, but good for you. In the current pedagogical mode, each episode resembles a video game, with tasks to complete and gold doubloons — they float in the air, Mario-style — to collect. It is a game, of course, over which the viewer has no actual control, for whatever answer is given or actions performed, or not performed, the cartoon goes on regardless, solving problems and gathering gold and praising the viewers for their supposed participation.
"Ahoy, mateys, do you want to join my pirate crew? [Pause for child to say, 'Yes.'] Great! To start today's adventure, everybody say the pirate password — 'Yo ho ho.' [Pause for child to say, 'Yo ho ho.']" Pull a lever, paddle a boat, make monkey noises. ("Monkey noises rule!") The show, which is prettily made, rings with the unabating enthusiasm ("What an awesome day!" "Yeah! Seashells and hermit crabs rule!") that scientists may have determined builds happiness in children but which sends a shiver right through me own aging timbers.
"Teamwork is central to the show's curriculum," its creators claim, though I'm not sure "Jake" teaches the value of cooperation any better than would, say, an episode of "Hogan's Heroes." Indeed, one might as easily believe that the message here is that in any group of three, one person is likely to be identified as the leader and it won't be the little round-faced guy. And if that is you, child, you had best find yourself a catchphrase. ("Oh, coconuts!" is already taken.)
'Jake and the Never Land Pirates'
When: 8:30 a.m. Monday
Rating: TV-Y (suitable for young children)