This year has proven another excellent year for Irish animation company Brown Bag Studios.
The Dublin-based outfit has continued to enjoy immense success with huge kids’ favourite, Octonauts, and they have managed to take America by storm, too, with Doc McStuffins.
The latter is a light-hearted but sensitive animated series about a young girl who plays doctor with her toys. .
The show was created by Chris Nee, a veteran of countless kids’ TV shows, from Sesame Street to Wonder Pets. Past work has earned her a Humanitas Award.
A key talking point in the US has been the decision of Nee and the show’s producer Disney to make the protagonist of African-American ethnicity. More striking, however, is the fact that the show doesn’t explicitly make any major fuss about this.
“I knew that if we made that decision at the start then we’d never have to deal with it again,” says Nee. “A family is a family is a family and a kid is a kid is a kid. The colour of her skin was a simple and positive choice to make but you don’t re-make that decision every time you sit down to write a new episode.
“But that little choice — which wasn’t a difficult one for us — has been very moving for some people. The power of television is the ability for people to see themselves. When you’re in the majority you don’t realise how powerful it is to not see yourself onscreen. We were surprised by how big the feedback was and it was a reminder that there are people who are not used to seeing themselves onscreen. For them it was incredibly powerful to see a young role model that was strong and smart and a leader.”
With its constant interactions between Doc and her eclectic range of toys, there are pleasant shades of Toy Story about Doc McStuffins. Yet Nee’s inspiration for the show comes from her own life. When her son was diagnosed with asthma she was inspired to conceive a show that might help children deal with visits to the doctor. Also influential was Nee’s own childhood. She grew up surrounded by the products in her mother’s toy store.
“Toys are a very serious business in my family,” she laughs. “And the idea that you can talk to your toys in a more real way is the ultimate wish fulfilment, but that was the imaginary life that I had as a kid. There was a particular stuffed doll that I was actually convinced that I could speak to. I remember telling my mother about it and she encouraged it – because she understood it was all about using my imagination.”
Nee believes Doc McStuffins has also benefited from a return to old-fashioned storytelling. “Children are like little opera stars. They’re high and then they’re low. They’re all over the place. And I think that’s what kids respond to — stories that have highs and lows, drama and comedy.”
* A Very McStuffins Christmas airs on Disney Junior on Dec 1 at 6pm.
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