The Plot at a Glance
Word Party is a Netflix Original TV show about a group of four anthropomorphic animated animal babies - Lulu the Panda, Franny the Leopard, Bailey the Elephant, and Kip the Wallaby - who like to play, but don't always know what words they need to use. When they get confused, they ask for help from Word Wally, a robot who only ever teaches four words at a time, the stingy bastard. Fortunately, one of those is always the one they're hung up on.
The show was made by the Jim Henson company and has echoes of Muppet Babies, but the format and content couldn't be more different. One of Word Party's most distinguishing features is its interactive element. Aside from the typical "characters ask the audience a question and pause for an answer" kinda stuff, the show creators took advantage of the fact that it will be streamed on PCs. So, occasionally an icon will appear on the screen and you are encouraged to click on it to get bonus content.
Each episode is about 10 minutes long or so and is guaranteed to have at least 2 minutes of singing and dancing. Premises featured include such riveting content as, "What color is brown?" and "What kind of animal is Lulu?"
This is a pretty obnoxious show.
I mean, yeah, clearly it's not meant for me - that's the whole point of me writing this review. I'm trying to let other movie nerds with kids know whether it does the trick or not. But even in the context of, "Hey, will my kids like this or what," this is really, really obnoxious.
The main problem is the animation design. Despite being by the Jim Henson company and having some fairly fluid movement, there's still a pervasive creepy element to everything. Most of the show takes place in a strange white void - it's like some empty hell scape where lost souls have been exiled to live out their futile eternities, unaware of the vast richness that reality and life may have to offer. The characters are gleefully ignorant of it. A typical episode opens with them waking up in their bedroom, which is a three-wall set in the middle of the white void, and then playing for a little while as if it doesn't matter that they are surrounded by perpetual, haunting nothingness.
Then you have to factor in their eyes, which have the plastic, staring-into-the-abyss quality that really cheap animation has. It's a strange contrast to the rest of the animation, which is actually pretty good - for example, when they dance, their arms and legs move fluidly and with great detail. But their eyes just stare and stare.
I can't say I'm a fan of the music, either. Some of it is catchy the way that all kids' music is catchy, but it takes the term "dumbed down" to new heights (depths?). A recurring hit is their "Apology Song," which features the immortal lyrics, "Let's not fight / it's not right / so let's not fight."
But, yeah, it's a show for kids and all. So how is it at being a kid's show?
Pretty good, actually. The main focus here is on vocabulary development, and they do a good job of using the scaffolding philosophy to build up to bigger and more advanced words. Here's an example of what I mean - in one episode, they are trying to think of words for colors, and the show naturally assumes that you probably have already taught your kid the basics: red, green, blue, etc. So the word they focus on is "turquoise." It's more advanced than you expect, but not so much that it would be confusing.
Word Party feels exactly like the sort of thing a stuffy Ph.D would come up with. It's got no soul, but it sure does the trick if you need some music and educational content to keep your kids busy for ten minutes. This is a great one to put on if you need to go use the toilet or eat a snack without having to share it.
Now that I think about it, my biggest complaint is probably the interactive element. The "click here for content" thing is so poorly utilized - it basically just pulls up digital flashcards for four vocab words, but there's nothing exciting or interesting about it. The show does a fine enough job on its own, so having that extra little "Click Here!" feels like homework you don't need.
My Score: 2 / 5
I can't say I liked it.
How Did Lulabelle (20 months old) React?
She loved it - we're talking 100% attention and investment. Lulabelle danced during all the songs, answered questions the characters asked, and never took her eyes off the screen once, except when she was performing an advanced twirl / baby pirouette maneuver. This is a clear 5 / 5 for her.
How Did Sonja (2 months old) React?
She barely noticed. But she loved watching Lulabelle dance, so that counts. Since she was smiling and giggling most of the time, let's say her score is a 4 / 5.
How Did Stephanie (My Wife) React?
Not happily. She now tries to pretend she can't see the icon on Netflix whenever Lulabelle asks for it. Sometimes she's successful.
Any Useful Ethical, Educational, or Thematic Content?
Oh, sure, there's tons. It's an educational show by design, so you've got plenty of direct and indirect vocabulary lessons. The songs are all about being polite to each other and playing nicely, and everybody is careful to use good manners.
Trigger Warnings / Egregious Offenses?
Yikes. There's three big ones: the sappy music, the ominous white void that the characters all dance in, and the creepy dead-eye stares they all have.
How Likely Are You to Be Annoyed?
How Likely Are You to Cry In Front of Your Kids?
Well, let me put it this way - any tears you weep will come from the pain you're bringing to the table, not what the show's putting out. I'll go with 25%.
Final Weighted Score: 4 / 5 for babies and toddlers, 1 / 5 for everyone else
Despite what Steph and I may feel, this one is clearly a winner if you have really young kids - just not the one you want to default to if you can help it. I would recommend Super Why instead, since that's also got interactive educational content and singing, but it's significantly less terrifying.
On the other hand, if you think about your kids' viewing habits the same way you think about how you prepare meals, you should probably watch this one with them a couple of times. It's the equivalent of eating your broccoli before you have dessert. Just don't marathon it. (You shouldn't be marathoning TV with your kids, anyway, but I've been there, too, friends. This is the wrong one to put on when you're down with a cold and need two hours to sit.)