It's taken nearly thirty years to bring Louis Sachar's Wayside School to life on TV screens - although it was doing just fine coming to life in the minds of several generations of readers. Still, it's fun to see the lunacy of Sachar's sideways-thinking characters in cartoon form, with modern animation being a perfect fit for the books' offbeat humor and unbound imagination.
The adaptation began in 2005, when Nickelodeon and Canadian cable outlet Teletoons teamed up to adapt a handful of tales from Sachar's 1978 debut book, Sideways Stories from Wayside School, into a one-hour mini-movie (later released on DVD as "Wayside: The Movie"). The collaboration worked, and in 2007, the two networks began airing "Wayside" as a regular series.
Fans of the book and its several sequels know the setup: instead of a school with thirty classrooms on one floor, Wayside Elementary got built sideways, so it's thirty stories high, one classroom per floor (and it would seem M.C. Escher was in charge of the rest of the layout). Eccentricity rules, with teachers who enjoy acrobatics, lunch ladies who love a good sweat sock stew, and students who sit upside-down in their desks, feet reaching toward the air, head never seen.
The series is presented through the point of view of Todd (voiced by Mark Rendall), a new student unaccustomed to Wayside's weirdness. He quickly becomes used to the oddball proceedings, and makes fast friends with Maurecia (Denise Oliver), a hyper, roller-skating gal who crushes on him; the dim-witted but sociable (and highly ambitious) Myron (Martin Villafana); and Dana (Lisa Ng), with her love for rules and regulations. Together, they must contend with Mrs. Jewls (Kathy Laskey), the easygoing teacher who was raised in the circus, and Mr. Kidswatter (Kedar Brown), the principal with a knack for absurd rules and childish behavior. And then there are the cows mistaken for substitute teachers, elevators that (naturally) go sideways (and only works when the stairs are broken - but how do stairs stop working?), and the dreaded "teacher's parent conference," in which students evaluate the teachers. Who wouldn't want to go to Wayside?
Production company Nelvana has come a long way since the clunky animation stylings of the 1970s, and with "Wayside," they present a sleek, colorful retro look based on attractively simple designs. Add in a keen anarchic attitude to the action, and the whole thing has a distinctive old-school flair that's as appealing to older animation fans as it is to younger viewers who are in it for the lunch lady jokes.
The scripts, often inspired by Sachar's original stories, delight in mixing absurd humor with fond grade school memories, and it's fun to see Todd wander through this madcap environment, getting crowned king of the kindergarteners, shoehorned into a dance contest, or labeled the new school mascot. (Actually, that would be "Big Head Todd," a giant mascot version of Todd that Myron wears.) These are bright, fast-paced examples of smart kids' comedy, obviously inspired by the anything-goes approach to laughs taken by most modern cartoons.
Nickelodeon recently began airing a second season of "Wayside," which looks to be every bit as fun (and funny) as the first. At this rate, let's hope we get plenty more sideways stories to come.
Paramount has collected the first thirteen episodes of "Wayside" into a two-disc set they're calling "Wayside School: Season One," perhaps to avoid confusion with their "Wayside: The Movie" release. (The show is called "Wayside School" in the UK, so it could also just be a title mix-up.) The original "Wayside" title remains intact on the actual programs.
Considering the erratic airing schedules of most kids' programming, it's unclear if this is a complete season, a complete first production batch, or just a sampling that Paramount has dubbed a "season" out of convenience. (Online sources all disagree where the season breaks go.) Considering we get all of the first thirteen episodes in order, I'm OK with the "season one" terminology.
The two discs are housed in a single-wide keepcase. Each thirty-minute episode contains two cartoons and is divided into four chapters (two for the shorts, one for the opening, one for the closing). The episodes included in this set are:
Disc One: "Pull My Pigtail"/ "Class Cow", "Meet the Pets"/"Oh, Great Leader", "Honors Class"/"Cabbage, My Boy", "Mascot Madness"/"He Is It!", "Best Friendzzz"/ "Kindergarten King", and "Myron Vs. Normy"/"Age of Aquarium".
Disc Two: "Channel Kidswatter"/"The Elevator", "Mad Hot"/"Mamaland Blues", "Principles of Principals"/"Teacher's Parent Conference", "Rat in Shining Armor"/"Mrs. Gorf", "Todd Falls in Love"/"French Fried", "Music Lessons"/"Todd and Bull Story", and "Louis Gets Some Class"/"My Fluffy Hair".
Video & Audio
Ignore the typo on the DVD box that says this is one's full screen: "Wayside" is presented here in a gorgeous 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that allows the colors to pop and the bold-line animation to stand out splendidly.
Dolby 2.0 provides all the clarity the series needs, carefully balancing the dialogue and lively music. (The show's catchy pop-rock theme sound sounds downright terrific in this mix.) Equally strong Spanish and French stereo dubs are included. No subtitles are provided, although the discs offer closed captioning.
A preview for "Wayside: The Movie" plays as Disc One loads.
In a brilliant touch, a paperback copy of Sideways Stories is packaged with the DVD set. That's enough to make up for the lack of any disc extras. (My daughter went to the book first, devouring faster than it took to later the shows. If the DVDs do nothing more than introduce kids to this book series, then its job is well done.)
The fusion of Sachar's inventions with smart animation has created a clever, often hilarious little show that demands a larger audience. Recommended.