Rick DeMott chats with Dora the Explorer co-creator Valerie Walsh Valdes to discuss the impact the decade old series has had on television and American culture.
Dora the Explorer has become a pre-school icon in the order of Blue's Clues and Barney. The unflappable adventurer has become a role model for young girls around the world and has changed the landscape of bilingual education. Since its debut a decade ago, from many children, learning a second language has transformed from something dreaded to something that can be cool. But the original course of what would become Dora wasn't traveling down that road. Serendipitous events were afoot at Nickelodeon at the turn of the millennium that would change kids television in a big way.
On the event of Dora's 10th anniversary, I took the opportunity to talk with one of the show's creators, Valerie Walsh Valdes, about the origins of the show and its place in TV history.
Rick DeMott: Where did the impetus for Dora the Explorer come from?
Valerie Walsh Valdes: I was working at Nickelodeon, along with Chris Gifford, doing development with outside creators, when our exec there wanted to develop something in-house, because Blue's Clue had been developed in-house. So it was kind of like a homework assignment.
Chris and I came up with similar ideas. We both wanted to make an interactive story-driven show, sort of like a CD-Rom. So we paired together and our first formal idea was called The Knock-Arounds. It started with a boy and his mother and then when we developed it the boy changed to a girl, because we thought it would be great if there was a strong girl character out there for pre-schoolers. We were then given the greenlight for her to be animated, because before this it had been a live-action show. We were going to work with motion capture. So we made the pilot and then the network said, "What if she were Latina?" And we said, "Oh may God, that's a curveball." So we went out and found people who could help us do that. So that's how Dora the Explorer was born.
RD: What were some of the influences you had in the various stages of developing it?
Early on we were thinking of breaking the fourth wall. That had a history in kids' TV with Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers' and more recently with Blue's Clues, which was like a game show where the host had the kids find clues with him. We use to call her the Indiana Jones of the pre-school set. That was very influential in her character and the kind of journey she went on, because we called it the hero's journey. We wanted it to be big quests, but for pre-schoolers. So finding your lost toy is a huge crisis when you're three years old like finding the lost ark is when you're 30 years old.
RD: Swiper, as the wily fox, seems straight out of folklore.
VWV: It was. If you're telling a dramatic story there has to be a villain. We wanted to have someone that can dupe the kid, but not terrify them. So we looked at Swiper as the fox in the hen house. He's got a little bit of an edge to him, but he's not eating the eggs, he just wants to play. He's the archetype of the trickster. We even had him before Dora was a girl. He's probably our oldest surviving character.
RD: Dora never seems phased by anything the villains do on the show and it seems to go to the core of the show's lesson of working together. Was that something that was there from the beginning?
VWV: That was the idea of having a problem-solving show right from the beginning. Little kids have obstacles that they encounter all day long like turning on a light switch or pouring cereal in a bowl. So we felt that having a character that says, don't give up, you can ask for help and that there is no obstacle that you can't overcome was a core to the character.
RD: Dora seems in stark difference to some of the characters on a show like Ni Hao, Kai -Lan where the characters get upset with the obstacles where Dora doesn't seem to get affected by them. Is that a conscious choice?
VWV: I'm pretty sure that on Ni Hao they have an emotional curriculum where they are dealing with feelings. So that's very different from ours. It's not that Dora is completely unaffected, but it's that she figures a way out of it. So even if she turns the corner and there is a giant mud puddle that she can't get through, she reacts by trying to figure out how to get around it without throwing a temper tantrum or melting down.
Boots [the monkey] is sort of a sit-in for the viewer. He's almost like a little brother to Dora. We see him as modeling the behavior of a small child, so he's not in total control. So when a challenge comes he's like "What are we going to do?" He gets frantic. So Dora is more of the comforting hero. She's like "It's okay. Don't give up. We'll figure it out."
RD: There were some big names involved in the voice cast. Was that something you wanted to do from the beginning?
We didn't have any big names in the beginning. Celebrities aren't interested in a new pre-school show. But once the show became popular, Nickelodeon has relationship with celebrities through its Kid's Choice Awards and stuff so we could get them. It was something that was definitely more of marketing toward the parents.
RD: When did you first realize that Dora had become a phenomenon?
VWV: The show became very popular very quickly, but we were still struggling to figure out the [first] season. We sort of had our heads down, writing and going to storyboard meetings. I would get calls from some of my friends who had kids and they'd say that their kids loved it. And I'd say that was great, but I was so immersed in making the show that the popularity didn't pop out at me.
But then probably two years later, when we were hearing that it was doing great in the ratings, I didn't think it had reached that pop status. But I was driving across the country to L.A. and stopping at these small towns along the way and I'd find Dora cards and Dora tchotchkes everywhere I went. And then another time we did a research trip down in Guatemala and our tour guide said we're going to go to a community that is 100% Mayan and they don't have a lot of outside influence and we got out of our van and there was a Dora piñata. So I knew then that she was everywhere.
RD: Many of the other iconic pre-school series, like Blue's Clues, have some live-action elements, what do you think being completely animated affords you?
VWV: Our lead character. We first started developing this as a live-action show. We thought it would be people in puppet suits. And that was due to budget. But when we were given an animation budget that changed everything. Our main character could be in every scene. We could go to strawberry mountains and have rainbow waterfalls and chocolate lakes. So it afforded us not only Dora, but also the world. It made the show much more magical. We wanted to tap into that magical realism that is in Latin American literature and the show being animated has allowed us to do that.
RD: Now that Dora is a major role model, how does it feel to have to craft and maintain that role model status?
VWV: From the get-go, Chris and I both knew that if you're going to put something on TV you're going to be teaching. Even if you don't call it an educational show you're teaching, especially for this age group, because they don't have critical thinking skills. So you have to be very, very aware of that. There is a standards and practices department, but I think we're even tougher on ourselves. Chris and our other creator Eric [Weiner] had pre-schoolers at the time and even things I didn't think of they would think of. You have that character there climbing up the boxes and that's a debatable behavior. So there was that part that was in the forefront of our consciousness.
Then when we made her Latina there was another layer that came in. So we had to portray the culture authentically. So we have had a dozen cultural consultants over the years who police our scripts to make sure that we're portraying the culture responsibly and in a positive way.
And now we're talking about making Dora more pro-social as a character. She will be working with charity initiatives. She'll be working with a pre-kindergarten program.
RD: What do you think of the pop culture parodies and mentions of the series like on SNL?
VWV: On the one hand, I find it really flattering. I love the SNL takeoff. We can laugh at ourselves. Then on the other hand, there is the stuff of questionable nature. Because she is so beloved by kids, when you cross a certain line that's when it gets uncomfortable for us. But for the most part three year olds aren't watching Saturday Night Live or John Stewart. But we love that. We feel like we're in the loop. We're the little pre-school show that gets to play with the cool kids.
RD: Is it uncomfortable when she gets used in the immigration debate?
VWV: Absolutely. Kids are going to see mom and dad opening up the paper and see that picture [of her bruised and bloody] and they're going to say what happened to Dora? I know that my daughter would probably cry if she saw that, because she is so in love with Dora.
Dora has been put out there to promote multiculturalism and bilingualism and then to be pulled into a political debate, when she isn't a political character, seems inappropriate. I don't think it helps the cause of acceptance.
RD: How do you feel about the show's impact on bilingual education?
VWV: Once we made her Latina we debated on whether or not to introduce Spanish. We heard that if you introduce a second language before the age of six, the ability to become fluent is much greater and the ability to acquire more languages is much greater. So for someone who is monolingual, who struggled through high school Spanish, I thought that explains it. We have to include Spanish.
My daughter who is two and a half is completely fluent in Spanish and English. It's incredible the sponge-like nature of their brains. She can also watch Dora in French and follow along. Promoting bilingualism in this new millennium with the global economy is crucial. I think that could be her legacy. In the U.S., I think that could be her contribution — promoting bilingualism.
Rick DeMott is the director of content for Animation World Network, VFXWorld and AWNtv. Additionally, he's the creator of the movie review site, Rick's Flicks Picks, which was named one of the 100 best movie blogs by The Daily Reviewer. He has written for TV series, such as Discovery Kids' Growing Up Creepie and Cartoon Network's Pet Alien, the animation history book Animation Art, and the humor, absurdist and surrealist website Unloosen. Previously, he held various production and management positions in the entertainment industry.
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