What we call the "short bus," Judge Bryan Pope's mom called the "magic bus."
"Take chances, make mistakes, and get your feet wet!"
In my fourth-grade science class, we did stuff like grow bean sprouts in sandwich baggies and watch cinematic pearls such as The Life of Cabbage or How Did I Become a Crayon?. I don't fault my teacher. It was obvious even at the time that science wasn't her strong suit, and it took all she had just to get us through it each day while maintaining her poise.
So I can't help but wonder what science class was like for Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen. While I doubt they embarked on field trips into outer space or back in time to the Jurassic period, their science teachers must have been some kind of wonderful. How else to explain Cole and Degen growing up to have not only a passion for the physical and natural sciences, but the brilliant imagination to pass that passion along through a magical schoolteacher and her equally magical yellow school bus?
Well, God bless them, because their series of award-winning The Magic School Bus books have been largely responsible for establishing a healthy curiosity about the sciences in, I would venture to guess, millions of children worldwide. The stories revolve around a daffy, curly-topped teacher named Ms. Frizzle who loads her reluctant young pupils onto the title character (which, by the way, has some serious personality going on) for field trips through the human body, beehives, volcanoes and hurricanes, among other fascinating places. It's a nifty concept, and one that has conditioned readers to expect the unexpected.
What was completely expected, though, was that the books would eventually make the leap to television. The books are so rich and colorful, so jam-packed with facts and fun, and so ready-made for television, that it was only a matter of time. It pleases me to say that the books' effervescent charm has arrived on the tube mostly intact. It even managed to snag an Emmy or two. Sure, the animated series is loud and the multi-ethnic schoolchildren more rambunctious than their literary counterparts, and not a pun goes unturned ("We're on the erode to ruin!" a child deadpans at one point), but Ms. Frizzle, her wild, ever-changing wardrobe and that wicked cool bus are just as you imagined they would be.
No small amount of credit goes to Lily Tomlin, an inspired casting choice for the voice of Ms. Frizzle. The Friz is a bizarre cross between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Mary Poppins, and I can't think of an actress more qualified to conjure just the right blend of weirdness and intelligence. Plus, Tomlin—a familiar face to most adult viewers—exudes a sort of warm reassurance to parents that their kids are in good hands.
The three episodes featured on Magic School Bus: Catches a Wave all have one thing in common, and that's H2O. In "Wet All Over," Friz and the gang learn about the water cycle and take a tour through the city's water works facility. In "Rocks and Rolls," they learn about erosion while chasing a runaway sculpture down a mountainside and into a raging river. Finally, the class learns about the relationship between water, weight and mass while searching for "The Monster of Walker Lake." During that last one, keep your ears open for Cindy Williams, who is having fun as the voice of unscrupulous newswoman Gerri Poveri.
Fans expecting a program that is as dense and detailed as the books may be disappointed ("Wet All Over" takes us through the water cycle not once, not twice, but three times, yet it can't squeeze in the books dozens of intriguing little factoids about water). But that's a minor quibble, and perhaps even one of the show's virtues. By building in some breathing room, the show keeps kids from feeling bombarded with science while still doling out enough key concepts to wow any grade school science teacher. And it beats the heck out of watching a movie about cabbage.
Magic School Bus: Catches a Wave is presented in its original full-frame format with Dolby 2.0 Surround. The package includes a brief but handy educational game called "What Comes Next," in which viewers test their knowledge of all things water.
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