Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Underground Rock Experience’ on HBO Max, A Musical ‘Toon With A Message About Acceptance

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Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Underground Rock Experience (HBO Max) is an adaptation of former Sesame Street writer Mo Willems’ best-selling picture book with musical numbers added. Largely animated aside from a few moments of live-action, Mole Rat features the voice acting talents of Jordan Fisher, Kate Miccuci, Yvette Nicole Brown, Ron Funches, Thomas Lennon, and – wow! – Carol Kane. 

Opening Shot: A power chord is struck on an electric guitar, and from the raised surface entrance of the naked mole colony’s burrow we travel down into the ground, where the network of chambers and tunnels all spill into an large arena complete with a stage. It’s time for the colony’s morning song, and the Mole-ing Stones are tuning up.

The Gist: Can you dig it?” The gathered crowd of naked mole rats are going nuts for the Stones, who sing a song about mole rat facts. They’re a little bit mole, they’re a little bit rat. And they’re always, always naked. That’s just a fact. It’s a unifying principle. But there’s a problem on stage. Lead singer Grande (Yvette Nicole Brown) is here, and guitarists Venti (Kevin Michael Richardson) and Tall (Kate Micucci) are, too. But where’s Wilbur J. Mole Rat (Jordan Fisher)? Nobody knows, but they resolve to find him before the band’s next performance. It’s what Grand-Mah (Carol Kane), the colony’s original burrow digger and matriarch, would expect. 

The thing is, Wilbur isn’t lost. He’s just taking some time to himself, mulling over what it all means. Sure, the mole rat colony bursts with solidarity over their stance on nakedness. And yes, no mole rat has ever found the need to accessorize with threads. But what if they did? Wilbur wonders, “Can clothes make the mole?” And in answer to his song, a brimmed hat floats down from a crack that’s formed in the roof of Wilbur’s chamber. He tries it on. It looks pretty good. And so Wilbur builds an outfit from the clothes that sprinkle from the sky.

With Wilbur strutting around in his dandy new duds – green plaid pants and a crisp white dress shirt, accessorized by his red necktie with white polka dots and that natty purple pork pie cap, complete with a feather – his bandmates in the Mole-ing Stones see a scandal on the horizon. “That’s impossible!” they sing about his sartorial decision. “It’s improbable! It’s unfeasible. Inconceivable! Unachievable. Unadvisable. Unbelievable!” Wilbur doesn’t see what all of the fuss is about. He’s even thinking about opening a haberdashery in the colony’s central business district. And in a dream sequence, an animated Wilber sings a Broadway-style song about “Hats & More,” accompanied by live-action dancers with top hats, tap shoes, and jazz hands.

Clearly, Grand-Mah is the only mole in this colony who can put Wilbur straight. Clothes? On a mole? Come on, man. But when Grande, Tall, and Venti take their friend before the great and mysterious leader, she’s not exactly what they expected, nor does she take the fact of Wilbur’s clothed status in quite the way they expected. 

 The Underground on HBOPhoto: HBO

What Shows Will It Remind You Of? HBO Max also features an entire season of Naked Mole Rat creator Mo Willems’ Storytime Shorts! – Wilbur gets dressed for the first time in episode 12 – and Willems was also behind The Off-Beats at Nickelodeon and Sheep in the Big City at Cartoon Network.   

Our Take: Naked Mole Rat never meets a naked pun it doesn’t like, and with the considerable voice acting talent on hand, the bits often sing more than the musical numbers, which range from standard issue ballads with a Broadway flair to a psychedelic hard rock Grand-Mah tribute that features naked mole rats decked out in David Bowie wigs and Bootsy Collins-style star-shaped sunglasses. The in-joke of DNN – “Definitely Nude Network” – following all the breaking news in the colony about clothes falling from a crack in the sky and one mole being so bold as to wear them is a fun one, too, particularly with the asides from “weather mole” Les Pants (Ron Funches). How exactly does this naked mole rat burrow have satellite hookups and flat screen TV’s, not to mention an amplified backline for the Mole-ing Stones’ performance? Please, don’t ask those kinds of questions. A pigeon driving a delivery truck full of doll’s clothes dumped the load down a hole in the mole hill, and that’s just how it is. DNN reported it; it’s gotta be true. 

Sex and Skin: Obviously nothing, other than approximately a million gags about how naked the moles are. When the rumor of clothes falling from the sky first hits, the colony’s news reporter initially declares it “Fake nudes.” 

Parting Shot: Back on the surface, where a street sign reads “Caution, Plot Holes,” a live-action policeman is questioning a cartoon pigeon. “So let me get this straight. You were driving a delivery truck full of doll clothes for fun when, out of nowhere, you saw a duckling with a hot dog crossing the road. So you swerved to avoid it, which made you crash into this particular ditch, and spilled an entire load of teeny, tiny clothes into that hole over there?” 

Sleeper Star: The affirmation dance Venti and Tall do to celebrate how their band is “just like this tunnel – we’re made of rock!” will be a hit with any kids wishing to impersonate its series of grunts and synchronized tail slaps. 

Most Pilot-y Line: “Grand-Mah does look great,” Wilbur tells his bandmates. “Grand-Mah does look regal. Grand-Mah does look magnificent! But she’d look even better in a casual shirt and some summer slacks. After a certain age, slacks flatter.”

Our Call: STREAM IT, especially if kids are familiar with Mo Willems’ picture books. Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Underground Rock Experience puts laughs and music to its central message of accepting each of us for who we wish to be.

Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges

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