I've written about my love for Schoolhouse Rock! Before (right here, in a review of Disney's recent "Election Collection" disc). Now we must turn to the sad truth about the series, which is this: every attempt to revive Schoolhouse Rock! has failed. While the original shorts, produced for ABC's Saturday morning lineup from 1973-1978, remain timeless mini-masterpieces of musical animation, the franchise has stumbled in every effort to continue since.
The problems began in 1983, when new episodes were produced under the "Scooter Computer and Mr. Chips" line. It was a clumsy attempt to bring the franchise into the era of the home PC; while the decision to use recurring characters was a nice move forward, the songs were weak, and, worse, unlike the timeless qualities granted to the lessons on grammar, history, math, and science, these shorts became almost instantly dated. (One short focused entirely on BASIC; another described the PC as a glorified calculator. It can make graphs!) They're now little more than quaint relics of the Reagan years.
The came "Money Rock," produced from 1994-96, when ABC brought the series back to its Saturday morning lineup. A few songs were moderately catchy, but nothing could overcome the fact that the subjects just didn't work. Whose idea was it to teach kids about taxes, stock brokers, and the national debt? Sure, children need to know the value of saving money, but too much of it was over-the-head stuff.
(During that brief revival, the creators also made two new "Grammar Rock" shorts, one of which, "The Tale of Mr. Morton," is the best of the newer cartoons yet is at best only fairly decent; it's mainly memorable for the groovy Skee-Lo cover it inspired.)
In 2002, when the entire collection was released on DVD, two more shorts were added to the "America Rock" banner, but again, both were passable at best. Perhaps this is because unlike the rest of the "America Rock" series, these new shorts didn't deal with history but with the American election system; two centuries of history is one thing, but could anyone condense something as insane as the Electoral College into three minutes?
Now, thirty years after the last of the original Schoolhouse Rock! shorts premiered, the franchise continues with eleven new cartoons collected under the clumsy banner title "Schoolhouse Rock!: Earth." (Wouldn't "Earth Rock" be a better fit?) Many of the original songwriters and performers have returned, but the quality has not.
The subject this time around, as the title suggests, is environmentalism. Inspired by 1978's "The Energy Blues" (which is the lone classic short to be shown here, presented as an "oldie but goodie" and remaining depressingly relevant), many of the songs are honest about our conservation problems without being angry about it. And despite the redundancy of the "do this or you'll ruin the planet" themes, they're not really overly pushy, either. It's all laid back in that traditional Schoolhouse Rock! vibe.
But they're also not very good. In fact, some of the tunes are downright terrible. "Don't Be a Carbon Sasquatch," written and sung by Bob Dorough (you'll remember his voice from most of the "Multiplication Rock" entries), is a sloppy mess of cloying melody interrupted by an obnoxious chorus that consists of nothing but a deep bass saying "sasquatch" over and over. (The explanation of the "carbon footprint" concept is only so-so; my daughter understood the "don't waste stuff" theme, but took the visuals of a guy with decreasing shoe sizes as literal, and not the metaphor it's supposed to be.)
Other problematic shorts include: Dorough and George R. Newall's "Report from the North Pole" tries to use funky syncopated jazz tones but winds up a jumble of off notes and off beats, sounding like its melody was made up on the spot; "Save the Ocean," by newcomer to the series Sean Altman, has a catchy doo-wop melody that's interrupted often by hip-hop breaks (none of the old shorts stooped to pandering to kids' modern tastes as much as this song's corny rap segments do); and "FatCat Blue: The Clean Rivers Song," from Andy Brick (another newcomer), which features a decent melody but ridiculous lyrics, which puts "don't litter!" and "when you're building a major dam, be sure to include a fish ladder!" on equal ground as things kids can do from day to day to keep the rivers healthy and clean. (Also: hey, kids, remember to clean the barnacles off your oil tanker!)
Most of the other entries are simply generic, such as "Solar Power to the People" and "Windy and the Windmills," each hyping their respective clean power sources, and "Trash Can Band," which supports the reduce-reuse-recycle strategy of waste reduction.
Only two shorts really stand out, and, perhaps tellingly, they're the two that venture furthest away from the traditional Schoolhouse Rock! mold. Lynn Ahren's "The Rainforest," sung by Tituss Burgess, uses catchy rhythms and a gorgeous watercolor-infused visual scheme to showcase jungle life, while the toe-tap-worthy "A Tiny Urban Zoo" (music by George Stiles, lyrics by Anthony Drewe, and vocals by Stiles, Barrett Foa, and Shoshana Bean) blends familiar Schoolhouse Rock! character design with some playful animation techniques in explaining the benefits of gardening.
Perhaps aware that today's kids will be watching these shorts together on DVD and not as separate shorts in part of a Saturday morning lineup, the producers include short bridging material between each short. Franchise vets Dorough and Jack Sheldon provide the voices for two polar bears who clown around in micro-situations often involving the upcoming cartoon's theme. These bits are cute but unmemorable.
Following the closing credits (reminding us again that this time around, the producers are treating these shorts as a single program) we're offered a music video for a new song titled "The Three Rs," performed by Disney's latest actor-singer insta-star, Mitchel Musso. It's a horrid reworking of "Three is a Magic Number," reimagining the tune as sub-Jonas pop-rock; the original verse is used to clumsily lead into new lyrics about the power of reduce-reuse-recycle.
Ironically, Disney's DVD presentation of "Schoolhouse Rock!: Earth" does not use the new eco-friendly packaging that's coming into vogue. It also includes a "Movie Rewards" promotional insert destined for the landfill.
Note: The polar bear bridging clips only appear when you select "Play All" from the menu. If you select individual songs instead, you'll be treated to title slates with voiceover introductions by the cast, slates that don't pop up during the full program. Huh.
The cartoons, in order, are:
"Report from the North Pole," "The Little Things We Do," "The Trash Can Band," "You Oughta Be Savin' Water," "The Rainforest," "Save the Ocean," "FatCat Blue: The Clean Rivers Song," " A Tiny Urban Zoo," "The Energy Blues," "Solar Power to the People," "Windy and the Windmills," "Don't Be a Carbon Sasquatch," and, following the credits, "The Three Rs."
The disc is equipped with Disney's "Fast Play" feature.
Video & Audio
Bringing the franchise into the modern widescreen age, "Schoolhouse Rock!: Earth" is treated to a full 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, as intended for these fancy new TV sets. ("The Energy Blues" maintains its original 1.33:1 broadcast format through pillarboxing.) Aside from the older "Energy Blues" (which features some grain and faded colors), all the shorts here look flat-out dazzling, with bright, clear colors and bold lines, without a lick of video problems.
The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack keeps most of the action up front; it's a simple mix that gives all the music a nice depth while keeping the lyrics clear. A French 5.1 dub is also included (reworking the songs as well as the dialogue), as are optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles.
The box lists "The Energy Blues" as a bonus, but it's actually part of the program. The only actual extras are the usual set of Disney previews and promos, several of which also play as the disc loads.
The total run time on "Schoolhouse Rock!: Earth," including credits and video, is around fifty minutes, which means even if it were a good program, it wouldn't be worth Disney's high retail price. I'm not sure I would even recommend it as a rental, either; while kids might enjoy this as an Earth Day special, my daughter only got into a few songs and hasn't asked about it since. (Compare that to the older cartoons, which she watches repeatedly.) There are plenty of other, better eco-minded videos out there for kids, while this is just a collection of crummy cartoons that fail to live up to their franchise name. Skip It.