Looking Back On The Magic School Bus Franchise

Well, I’ve talked about magical tree houses, but there is another notable children’s book series named after a magical object that sadly, unlike Magic Tree House, isn’t exactly doing terribly well right now.

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In case you already know what I’m talking about, yes, I am indeed referring to the recent soft reboot of the fantastic 1994 PBS Kids Magic School Bus television series, The Magic School Bus Rides Again. And yes, I am very well aware that the critical reception to the show is pretty divisive, and yes, I am on the anti-Rides Again side of what has sadly become a divided fan base.

The Magic School Bus is a property that is fairly close to me, and it breaks my heart to know that this slip up in an otherwise fantastic franchise has us so split apart like this. I’ve been really wanting to discuss the issue for some time, hoping that I could somehow unite us back together. But the fact of the matter is that this has become a monumental task and there is a lot to say, which is why this post ended up being a three-part post. This first part reflects on some of the history of the franchise prior to the release of Rides Again, and is a reminder of what makes the books and the original television series great.

This is to provide a deeper analysis into the next part, in which I will explain what works and what doesn’t work about Rides Again and why it ultimately fails because of that. The final part will discuss how we even got into this mess in the first place: exactly how Rides Again came to existence, what went wrong during the development of the reboot and the possible options that are next for the franchise to fix its current state. And in doing so, I hope to have succeeded in using Part One to make us realize what gave us this passion to fight, Part Two to make us realize our differences and the things we can agree on to stop fighting each other, and Part Three to make us realize who we should really be fighting. And of course, I’d like to give a heads up to obvious spoilers to the media.

What’s that, Arnold? You don’t want this to be another field trip? Well, hate to break it to you, but it’s indeed going to be some field trip, so without farther ado…to the bus!

What Made Us Start Driving This Bus

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So, what has become of The Magic School Bus is a total shame, because historically speaking, the franchise has been phenomenal, with Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen having created what is arguably children’s literature’s preeminent depiction of edutainment. In case you don’t know, edutainment is the combined application of education and entertainment to provide a more effective and entertaining means to teach children various school subjects. I have plans for an edutainment franchise myself – which could very well be the first of my unrevealed projects that I will reveal – and trust me, there’s great potential in it, and until now, The Magic School Bus has shown us that.

And it is important to remember where the recognition of that potential came from in the first place. Interestingly enough, while Cole and Degen are credited with creating The Magic School Bus, it was never their idea to actually make the franchise. That came from Craig Walker, the vice-president and senior editorial director of Scholastic at the time of the franchise’s conception in 1986. Walker, who was getting responses from teachers wanting more science-themed picture books during a time in which picture book sales were dominant, came up with the then-unprecedented idea of merging education with storytelling:

I remembered as a child loving to go on field trips. So I thought about doing books about kids going on field trips to places they really couldn’t: through a water system, to the bottom of the ocean, inside the earth. And I remembered an eccentric second-grade teacher in my school who everyone thought was the best. She brought everything imaginable into her classroom—even a teepee—and had every corner, ledge and windowsill filled with things. So that is where Ms. Frizzle came from.

Walker couldn’t execute his idea by himself, so he approached Cole, who had previously written both science and humor, and Degen, an illustrator whose work he had been previously familiar with, to carry out his concept. Much to his amusement, Walker would find that he made the right choices: it turned out that Cole was able to relate to him quite well.

I discovered in the fifth grade that I enjoyed explaining things and writing reports for school. I had a teacher who was a little like Ms. Frizzle. She loved her subject. Every week she had a child do an experiment in front of the room, and I always wanted to be that child. Grade school was very important to me — maybe that’s why I ended up writing books for children as an adult.

Not only that, but Cole and Degen ended up having much respect for each other, which Walker cited was a huge factor in the success of the series:

Bruce was very interested in the science aspect and Joanna is very art-oriented, so they clicked and were able to add to each other’s ideas. To me that is 70 percent of the series’s success. And putting nonfiction inside a fictional story really appealed to teachers, whose support has been largely responsible for making the series so popular.

And that is what I think is important to remember: merging the nonfictional and the fictional together, and doing it properly. Walker also points out how the hardest and most important aspects to edutainment are “keeping a good sense of humor, sifting through tons of information and keeping focus on the basic questions of the subject”. He understood that, while education should always be put first, children usually won’t be immediately attracted to it unless there is an added twist of entertainment to it that would normally capture their interest. And if there isn’t an equal amount of effort put into both (poor storytelling, poor educating), it simply won’t work. It’s this understanding that has given the franchise the respect it has had with parents, teachers and its target audience alike – and what has enabled this bus to keep riding on until now. As for me?

My Personal History With The Friz

I was a 2000’s kid, so I (sigh) wasn’t exposed to too much Magic School Bus media. But I did occasionally come across the books in my elementary school, in which I got a taste of Ms. Frizzle’s quirky exploits. I also have quite a fondness for science myself, so the books became something I was particularly attracted to. Although I never got the chance to truly watch the original series as a kid, I did see it play on the televisions at Scholastic’s headquarters in Manhattan during my visits there as a kid. It’s not like I spent the whole visit watching it, but I was quite intrigued at seeing animated versions of the characters from a distance.

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Seriously though, if you’re ever in New York City, check out Scholastic’s headquarters. They do their business on the upper floors, but the first two floors are practically the greatest children’s bookstore ever. Even cooler, the building itself has some history behind it. Though keep in mind that I noticed they changed their entrance recently, which I’m not sure is temporary or not, though I preferred the original arrangement.

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Anyway, even in spite of this, I knew enough about Ms. Frizzle and her world to understand what makes it so great. And so I decided to make up for lost time and truly understand what I missed for the sake of these posts by watching the original series on Netflix up until the first season, just to not wait until forever to put out the posts and to just get an idea. And I am indeed grateful that it still exists on the streaming service, especially now that Rides Again was also exclusively released on the service.

And wow, what a mistake I made to wait this long!

Original Series Review

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“Seat belts, everyone! It’s time to get reviewed!”

Given the number of episodes it made, there weren’t enough installments in the book series at the time to make a full TV series without telling then-original stories. Because of that, the writers didn’t feel like they had to adapt the books in order. Instead, they took the next best route by adapting Lost in the Solar System for the first episode, appropriately titled “Gets Lost In Space”. Probably the most well-known book in the series, the familiarity of the story gave for an ideal introduction to the show that the writers more than properly serviced. And this is taking into account an infamous scene towards the end of that same episode, which goes to show how great the series was in its storytelling power.

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What makes “Gets Lost In Space” and the book in which it’s based so interesting is that the circumstances in which the field trip happened divert from the typical Magic School Bus formula. Instead of Ms. Frizzle simply telling the class that they were going on another field trip, they played with the story to divert from a trope that wasn’t even established yet on the show, given that this was again, the first episode. Basically, Arnold’s know-it-all cousin Janet visits the class in her attempt to disprove the great rumors she’s heard of the so-called magical Ms. Frizzle and her school bus. Arnold isn’t too annoyed about it at first, believing that Janet would eat her words upon her first field trip with his class. But then Frizzle visits a planetarium – that is closed – to his surprise, leaving Frizzle subjected to Janet’s insults. And that’s when Arnold, famous for his general dislike of his teacher’s field trips, chooses to defend her by ordering they actually head to space itself.

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I’d say Arnold looks the worst here – because why not? XD

The story doesn’t end there, but the superb quality of the writing goes down to the characters’ individual lines. When Arnold tells Frizzle to take them to space, he could’ve easily told her what I just wrote. But instead, he tells her to take them to “the bigger planetarium”, which uses the writing technique of showing, not telling, and giving the audience a chance to understand what it is that’s being told or what’s about to happen as a way to get immersed in the story.

After Janet eats her words, she spends much of the trip attempting to disprove the other skeptics in her own class by sampling bits and pieces of nearly the entire Solar System for proof for her trip as the class visits the other planets. And we’ll divert from Janet a bit to discuss Ms. Frizzle, what happens to her in this episode, how it relates to her character in general and why it’s awesome.

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At first glance, the character seems odd or maybe even crazy, and if you really want to get into it, the things she puts her classmates through can get pretty dangerous to the point of being unethical. But upon farther inspection, you’ll realize that it (mostly) doesn’t matter because she just knows what she’s doing, thanks to a vast amount of knowledge in science, busanautics and magic as a former student of Hogwarts. 😛 Yes, she takes them to space, under the ocean and in each other’s bodies, and there are a million different ways in which those things can go wrong. But she does it with such confidence, optimism and zest that even when something goes wrong, she rarely gets worried about it. You can even see that in her smile, which rarely leaves her face. There are even moments in which she’ll deliberately send the class into danger in an attempt to teach them new topics. But she doesn’t care because she knows everything will be okay in the end no matter what, and this episode really drives that point home.

For instance, an asteroid crashes into the bus while the class is in the Asteroid Belt that damages the navigation system to get to the other planets, but Frizzle is nonchalant throughout the whole mishap as she tries to fix it. But then another mishap occurs in which Janet, in her attempt to collect another sample from the belt, accidentally causes Frizzle to get separated from the group before she finishes. You’d think that maybe now with two mishaps, Frizzle would finally have a cause for concern. But not only is she still unfazed by it, she actually takes advantage of the rescue mission the class now has to go on. She doesn’t tell the class where she is, other than the fact that she safely landed on another celestial body. Instead, she tries to make them figure out which celestial body she ended up on. She also compensates for not finishing repairs on the navigation system by getting Janet – who caused the second mishap in the first place – to act as the navigation system due to her boasting about her knowledge of the planets.

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This is a good time to mention the humor, which heavily relies on clever wordplay that is subtle yet effective. It is also aware of when a pun might not work as well and takes full advantage of it to make a joke in and of itself, typically in the case of Carlos. When the class can’t take Janet’s recklessness anymore in her attempt to sample something from Saturn, Arnold is ordered to keep her restrained by sitting on her with the seat belt strapped in. During Janet’s attempt to free herself, Arnold hilariously replies:

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“I have to sit on top of the situation.”

Eventually, it is revealed that Frizzle ended up on Pluto. This is only one of many other instances in which the writers show, and don’t tell the audience exactly how Frizzle does what she does, and it wouldn’t be as fun that way anyway as it would kind of take away the mystery of it all. The way she took advantage of the rescue mission also shows another great aspect about her character: she doesn’t always directly teach the students, and spends just as much time trying to find ways for the class to learn about the topic themselves. But back to Janet…and that infamous scene…

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Oh boy…

It was already implied throughout the episode that Janet was collecting a bit too much of the Solar System. And when the bus can’t take it anymore, Janet insists on staying on Pluto with her samples. Arnold, in his attempt to convince Janet to change her mind, takes off his helmet to show her what will happen if she stays there, and he gets frozen instantly. Realistically, Arnold…wouldn’t have survived even if quickly brought to a proper air source. I heard about the infamy of the scene before I actually watched it, but here’s the thing: I figured that it was so infamous because even the producer segment missed that point, a part of the show I will get into later. But it actually doesn’t, which I guess got overlooked. Even so, the scene happened towards the end of the episode, so even in spite of the famed slip up, audiences were already won over by that point. And the series never really had a slip up as monumental as that one for the rest of its run.

Anyway, Arnold’s bravery proves to work, enticing Janet to help the other kids…uh…save his life. And Janet realizes that the memories of her adventures and seeing the Friz in action for herself is far better than spreading the proof. (Though maybe she didn’t have to be so greedy on the samples? Eh.)

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But the show only keeps up this quality as it continues. As the series progresses, we get to know the characters a little bit more as each episode tends to focus on a particular student, such as Wanda in “Hops Home” and “Meets the Rot Squad” and Phoebe in “All Dried Up” and “Goes To Seed”. And even though the episodes lean closer to the Frizzle-announcing-a-field-trip formula to varying degrees, the plots still have their own sense of individuality to them. Some episodes start their field trips out of an idea Ms. Frizzle has based on the motivations of one of the students, while other episodes have their field trips directly started by one of the classmates themselves. The class was a lot larger in the books, but it may have been hard to tackle the development of so many characters within the allotted runtime if all the students were put in the series.

And when it came to what these kids were doing, I cared during every moment of it. I cared for Arnold when he accidentally swallowed that gum he was chewing for Wanda to score that sweet Action Mountain ride. I cared for Ralphie when he was too sick for Broadcast Day. I cared for Keesha when she and Arnold didn’t have a report to hand in. I cared for Wanda when she lost her precious frog, Bella. I cared for Carlos when he couldn’t get his instrument to sound the way he wanted for the musical. I cared for Dorothy Ann when no one could relate to her love for physics. I cared for Phoebe when she was embarrassed of what her teacher from her old school would think of her new school. And I cared for all of them when they tried to throw a surprise party for Ms. Frizzle’s birthday – which had some of the highest stakes in any of the episodes of the first season due to Frizzle having to be largely absent from it. They ultimately needed her help to get them out of their situation, which certainly did not help to hide the surprise. But they still successfully surprised her against all odds – making for a truly heartwarming moment. It’s not just about science. It’s a story about a class that may ride a magical school bus of all things – but it feels very, very real.

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Each of the students have their own distinct character traits that try to cover nearly every kind of personality possible, so that everyone in the audience can have a character to relate to. For me, it’s always been Phoebe – this was even the case when I read the books. (The caller from the producer segment of “All Dried Up” even agrees with me.) Her sweet, kind and caring nature is one that resonates with me, as I’m very much like that myself. I even had an old school, though I often overlooked this part about her anyway. I also really love her design, and it’s easily my favorite of the classmates. And yes, I’m aware that Arnold is the best known classmate, and is the character who was developed most during the course of the series because of this. But for me, Phoebe is my personal favorite.

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C’mon, Rides Again! I can’t be the only one, right? LOOK AT HER!

But they’re all great. Carlos was the one who’d always try to make the class laugh, and fail like a real practicing comedian would. Keesha was the serious cynic who’d always view things from a realistic, practical perspective. Dorothy Ann was the bookworm for those types who didn’t even need the entertainment to be into the science, giving them an extra treat. Ralphie was the humorous daydreamer for the opposite of those types, a kid who cared more about sports and comics than science but navigated this world anyway like most of the audience did. Wanda was the courageous tomboy who embraced the adventure and danger her zany teacher brought to the table. You know Arnold’s gist by now – where you may have seen excitement in having the Friz as a science teacher like Wanda did, Arnold represented that other kid who saw certain doom, and understandably so. And Tim? Well…he was arguably the least developed character by comparison – none of the episodes in the first season at least really focused on him – but even he had that distant, observant and of course, artistic thing about him. And honestly, I can probably even relate to him, too, at least for what character he had.

The show does a great deal in depicting the characters’ personalities and interactions with each other down to the voice acting and animation. Everyone is expressive and true to life as they should be, from their voices to their facial expressions to their body language. In the case of the latter two, this is especially important in a character like Liz, Frizzle’s trusty pet lizard, of which these are her primary means of communication as the character typically doesn’t speak. Even Liz was entertaining to watch as a result, so much so that I even found myself directing my attention to the character rather than what was going on in the rest of the scene every now and then. This was especially the case in the producer segments.

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Speaking of the producer segments, they were the perfect means of adapting the section at the end of the books in which they distinguish what parts about the story were fact and what were fiction. They generally focus on a male and female producer, but other characters take their place just as often. Even more so, the show plays with the formula of the producer segments in much of the same way it does with the Frizzle-announcing-a-field-trip formula. In fact, my favorite producer segment in the first season is the one for “Gets Ready, Set, Dough”. In it, the Baker takes the place of the producers and actually tries to figure out what the visitor to his bakery (the caller) thinks was wrong with the episode. He even bets all his pastries on it (while Liz takes some under his nose). And hilariously enough, the visitor actually thinks nothing is wrong, leaving his store empty. Yikes.

Is the show without its faults? Well, it would’ve been cool to see the episodes told in chronological order, at least with what we know wasn’t told chronologically. “Gets Lost In Space” was said to not be the first episode produced, but was more likely chosen to be the first episode to air. This is due to Arnold stating that the events of “Meets the Rot Squad” and “Blows its Top” already happened before the events of the episode, which suggests that those episodes were the first ones made. Not only that, but I would have loved to see the class getting introduced to the Friz for the first time and how they’d react to what exactly they were in for throughout the school year.

I’d also point out the advancements and changes in science that have happened since the series ended. Yeah, those who grew up on the series probably still have a bone to pick with the International Astronomical Union for no longer making Pluto a planet – and I myself was in an astronomy phase and the same age as Arnold and company during that fateful year in 2006 – but with a show about science, it’s bound to get outdated eventually. And although the show can’t get updated, Cole and Degen do what they can and update the books every few years. The show has also somewhat aged from a purely visual standpoint – but when the stories are as good as they were here, they will always stand the test of time – and that’s one thing that will never age.

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“WAHOO! I couldn’t have said it better myself!”

Well, I hope I made you realize what gave us this passion to fight, and everything that’s great about this generally awesome franchise. Unfortunately, even good things come to an end, and sometimes faultier stuff begins. Wish me the best of luck if you want as I watch Rides Again next, in which I will be reviewing it in much the same way as I did the original series – the first episode, and the general aspects. But this field trip ends for now, and I’m sure some of you may at least partly appreciate the break.

Until that foot-shaped gas pedal gets pushed again, folks. 😉

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