Cartoon review: "Molly of Denali"

“Molly of Denali” is an animated series that debuted on PBS Kids (PBS’ children’s programming block) in 2019.

Summary

The series stars Molly Mabray, a 10-year-old Alaska Native girl (voiced by Sovereign Bill) who lives in the fictional Alaska village of Qyah. Molly’s parents, Walter and Layla (voiced by Ron Harris and Jules Koostachin), run the Denali Trading post, a general store. Walter also runs nature tours for tourists, while Layla also works as a plane pilot.

Other characters include:

  • “Grandpa Nat”: Layla’s father (and Molly’s grandfather), a volcanologist. Voiced by Lorne Cardinal, who’s better known for a role on the popular Canadian sitcom “Corner Gas.”
  • “Auntie” Midge: the village’s tribal leader. Voiced by Adeline Potts.
  • Tooey: Molly’s best friend, a boy interested in dog sleds and mushing. Voiced by Sequoia Janvier.
  • Trini: an African-American girl who moved with her father from Texas to Qyah; her father’s the librarian at the village library. Voiced by Vienna Leacock.
  • Oscar: a boy who loves playing the fiddle. He’s also Auntie Midge’s grandson. Voiced by Pawaken Koostachin-Chakasim.
  • Nina: a nature photographer. Voiced by Katrina Salisbury.
  • Suki: Molly’s dog.

Qyah’s shown as a very tiny village. In one episode, Molly says there’s slightly under 100 people there. The cast itself reflects such; not only is Oscar Auntie Midge’s grandson, he’s also the son of the kids’ school teacher, Mrs. Marsh. The only major businesses (besides tourism) are the Denali Trading Post and a food co-op/restaurant run by another character.

Most of the cast are Alaska Native (though Tooey’s father is Japanese). As such, the show heavily features aspects of Alaska Native culture. (The voice actors and creative staff behind “Molly of Denali” are also Indigenous people.) One episode, “Tale of the Totem,” features Molly visiting her relatives in Sitka to watch her first totem pole raising. Molly also frequently says “Mahsi’ Choo,” the Gwich’in language word for “thank you.”

Another educational aspect of the show is seeing the characters solve problems through research, logic, and the use of technology. Molly herself runs a vlog about life in and around Qyah, and the characters make frequent use of the Internet. The series itself was also launched in a technologically modern way: through a multipart story released as an audio podcast. The podcast tells the origin of Suki as Molly’s pet, plus how Molly’s parents came to run the Trading Post.

Highlights

  • “Grandpa’s Drum”: the show’s first episode, which discusses the subject of Native American boarding schools. A very serious topic (and one rarely mentioned in a children’s program), but a topic the show handled well.
  • “Cabbagezilla”: an episode centered around Trini trying to grow a giant cabbage for the state fair. I liked how the episode poked fun at the expression “don’t mess with Texas.” (“They messed with Texas!”)
  • “The Worm Turns”: Molly, Tooey, and Trini are convinced there’s giant ice worms after hearing a scary story by Grandpa Nat.
  • “Turn on the Northern Lights”: Trini tries to stay up to see the aurora borealis for the first time.
  • “Tooey’s Hero”: Tooey’s idol, a famous musher, is set to visit Qyah on a mail run re-enactment. The episode actually brings up climate change, which plays into the plot.
  • “Brand New Flag”: inspired by the story of Benny Benson (an Alaska Native teen who created Alaska’s state flag), Molly runs a contest to create a flag for the Trading Post. Her classmates take the contest extremely seriously; Trini’s particularly amusing (she “happens” to stop by to point out to Molly the merits of her entry).
  • The show won a Peabody Award in 2020.

Opening credits

Here’s the show’s opening credits.

Molly, Trini, and Tooey, from "Molly of Denali." (PBS)

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Anthony
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