|Kai-lan and her grandfather, Yeye, will ask kids for help. (NICK JR.)|
Kai-lan Chow, the newest addition to Nickelodeon's "Nick Jr." preschool block, has big, wide-set brown eyes and a penchant - like some others on her network - for breaking the fourth wall. Many times in every episode of "Ni Hao, Kai-lan," the new animated series that launches at 11 a.m. today, she will gaze beyond the TV screen and ask her audience for help. Often, the task will involve repeating a word in Mandarin.
Of the many goals packed into every half-hour "Ni Hao" episode, this is the most inventive and ambitious: To give preschoolers a rudimentary lesson in the Chinese language. (Ni Hao, incidentally, means "hello.") There is precedent, of course; PBS's "Sesame Street" taught a generation to count to 10 in Spanish, and Nick Jr.'s "Dora the Explorer" and "Go, Diego, Go!" have continued the tradition. "Ni Hao, Kai-lan" promises political relevance, too. Of all the languages worth knowing in the future, Mandarin ranks high.
It also happens to be a tough language to learn, wholly different-sounding from English, dependent on subtle differences in tone. "Ni Hao" will benefit from preschoolers' penchant for watching shows over and over again. And it will rely heavily on the pregnant pause - that Nick Jr. staple, first popularized by the likes of Dora - that follows every Kai-lan question.
Strange as it sounds to the uninitiated, that pause is research-tested, and it works. Three-year-olds love talking back to the screen almost as much as devotees of "Wheel of Fortune." In "Ni Hao," they're asked for help not just with Chinese pronunciation, but with basic social issues that trip kids up: copying, listening, sharing, fear. In today's episode, one of Kai-lan's friends, a tiger named Rintoo, gets mad when he doesn't win a race. With the help of the pause, Kai-lan figures out why he's angry, then comes up with a musical solution. "When you feel too mad," she sings, "the first thing that you do is calm . . . calm . . . down!"
It's a catchy tune, alas, in that most grating of ways. "Ni Hao, Kai-lan" doesn't have the musical inventiveness - or the psychedelic nature - of "Yo Gabba Gabba!" or "Wonder Pets!," two Nick Jr. offerings that have become parental cult faves. This new show feels a bit more like a laboratory creation. Its images are borrowed from anime, its characters sweet but sometimes unremarkable: a friendly koala, a happy rhino, a jumpy monkey (look out for repetitions of "tiao," the Mandarin word for "jump").
One nice touch is Yeye, Kai-lan's grandfather, who functions as both a wise adult and a guide to Chinese culture. The staples he introduces - a vibrant stream of lanterns, paper dragons, and dumplings - might well be this show's biggest contribution. Teaching kids to speak perfect Mandarin is laudable, but hard. Shrinking the world is easy.