Take Two: 'Magic School Bus' never really left my memory
Our weekly series in which writers revisit for the first time in ages their youthful passions and reconsider how well they hold up with the passage of time.
Growing up, I didn’t have cable. Friends my age, fellow 20-somethings raised on ’90s and turn-of-the-millennium entertainment, reminisce about Nickelodeon and Disney Channel shows. “Hey Arnold!” and “Even Stevens” were never part of my childhood. Sometimes I feel like I missed out, but not when I fondly remember how PBS ruled my toddler and early elementary school days. My small screen delights were “Sesame Street” (of course), “Wishbone,” “Arthur” and — my favorite — “The Magic School Bus.”
It’s no surprise “Magic School Bus” captivated my imagination. As the dorky kid who always actually liked school and also as an early-on fan of sci-fi and fantasy, I was enthralled by the adventures of Ms. Frizzle’s class and their (literally) out-of-this-world field trips that served as fun lessons about science. I looked forward each week to seeing how the bus would morph to explore the depths of the ocean, the channels of Ralphie’s bloodstream, or bygone eras when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, taking reluctant Arnold, bookish Dorothy-Ann, wisecracking Carlos, et al. along for the ride.
Revisiting “Magic School Bus,” I realized that the show has been preserved pretty well in my memory. Whole episodes remained in my brain, and I noticed that my mental image of the inside of the human stomach, to this day, looks just like Arnold’s stomach.
That’s probably because I was obsessed with the show and watched it a lot. (I was also obsessed enough to have my eighth birthday party be “Magic School Bus”-themed, even featuring pin-the-tail-on-Liz. I am bravely sharing a photo of the proceedings below.) Thanks to my parents, who helped me record every episode onto VHS tapes, I watched favorite installments like “Gets Lost in Space,” “For Lunch,” “The Busasaurus” and “In the Haunted House” over and over and over again.
Re-watching “Magic School Bus,” there was one thing I picked up on that I definitely hadn’t caught as a kid: The show has a handful of fun references to the entertainment industry that wouldn’t have meant anything to six-year-old Emily. Each episode ends with a segment where the show’s “producer” takes phone calls from kids who point out inaccuracies/stretches of the truth in the show (this is “Magic School Bus”’s opportunity to clarify just where the magic comes in so young viewers are sure to take only scientifically accurate lessons from the show). In “For Lunch,” one caller complains that Arnold digested his food impossibly fast. The producer responds, “It takes more than 10 hours to digest, but when we pitched ‘Digestion: The Mini-Series,’ the network didn’t bite.’”
Beyond that, since the show did stand up in my memory so clearly, re-watching several episodes of the show and seeing it through adult eyes wasn’t a revelatory experience for me. But here’s what was a fun, new field trip: Delving into “Magic School Bus” with 2015’s Internet at my fingers. A few Google searches and IMDb scouring led to these discoveries:
1. The theme song is sung by Little Richard. I had no idea the funky tune that I heard again and again as a kid was sung by a rock and roll legend.
2. Just when I thought Ms. Frizzle couldn’t get any cooler, I find out she was voiced by Lily Tomlin.
3. The actor who voiced Carlos played Jason in “Mean Girls.” Of course the class clown cool kid went on to date Gretchen Weiners.
4. There is, unsurprisingly, a treasure trove of awesome fan art out there, including the “Magic School Bus” kids as Disney characters, as Jedi, all grown up (Tim got hot!), and some adorable slash art of Ms. Frizzle with Mary Poppins.
5. Somehow I missed the news last year that the show will be rebooted as a Netflix series called “The Magic School Bus 360 degrees,” set to debut in 2016, using CGI animation. Hmm. Seeing the concept art for the show’s new look makes me realize how TMNT fans must have felt about their beloved turtles’ 2012 reboot. But I am curious to see what science topics the show explores about 20 years after the original aired. Netflix promises the reboot will explore “the latest tech innovations, such as robotics, wearables and camera technology.”
I wouldn’t say “Magic School Bus” is a show I’d sit down and watch much as an adult, but if you’re a ’90s kid looking for a nostalgic escape, I’d recommend checking it out again. And I know I’ll dig out the series when I have kids of my own: I hope Ms. Frizzle fires up their imaginations and hunger for adventure and learning just like she did for me.