Disney marks the soft launch of a Disney Channel dedicated spinoff for preschoolers, Disney Junior, with “Jake and the Never Land Pirates.” Part video game, part interactive cartoon, part advertisement for “Peter Pan” merchandise, it’s a slick product aimed at the just-out-of-diapers set — one in which they can collect gold doubloons, helping them learn to count. Disney doubtless sees its lucrative booty in this expansion of its brand, which will take over the Soapnet as a stand-alone channel in 2012.
Pint-sized pirates Jake and his saucer-eyed pals Izzy and Cubby find themselves in constant conflict with Captain Hook (voiced by Corey Burton), with a pair of 11-minute adventures in each half-hour. In that time, the producers manage to squeeze in not only little educational flourishes (“Do you see my seashell?”) and a couple of songs, but also coax kids to participate (“Let’s all make monkey noises!”)
Parents venture near the set at their own peril, but the slapstick elements are perfectly tame, and the brightly colored imagery — down to a little pirate vessel that suspiciously resembles the ships in the “Peter Pan” ride at Disneyland — ought to keep tiny ones fixated. (Two- to 5-year-old tots will probably be less impressed by upcoming guest voices, among them Tori Spelling and Adam West.)
Admittedly, programming for preschoolers is a somewhat thorny arena — teaching kids to veg out in front of the tube at an early age — but parents are letting kids watch TV anyway, and “Sesame Street” shouldn’t be the only bastion for them.
The real question is how thinly Disney, Nickelodeon (which has its own Jr. brand) and other players in this space can keep slicing the banana. For all their noble chat about educating kids, one suspects that will be determined by how many gold doubloons fare like “Jake” puts in the treasure chest.