I'm the parent of a two year old, and as everyone out there who's ever had a child can probably relate, the televisions in our home have seemingly switched ownership. Instead of baseball, football, or reruns of Family Guy and Seinfeld, my wife and I have been inundated with the likes of Jake and the Neverland Pirates, Octonauts, Chuggington, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Curious George, and the list goes on. To be perfectly honest, I enjoy a fair amount of the programming my son has fallen in love with, but most of these shows just aren't very educational. Sure, there's some implementation of problem solving, counting, reading, and lessons regarding right and wrong, but it's all done at a minimal level. With the exception of Sid the Science Kid and Super Why, I feel these shows have served more as entertainment than edutainment. At the same time, I can't force him to watch something he doesn't care for, so it seemed like my only available discourse was to limit the amount of television he watched. Don't get me wrong, my child is far from being a couch potato, and when the TV is on he usually runs around in endless circles, but his mind is a sponge and he's been soaking up information very quickly and I want to take advantage of that. Fortunately, I've found an alternative that will feed him the educational programming he needs, while still ensuring he's blissfully entertained - The Magic School Bus - The Complete Series is now available on DVD.
This is great, because my son goes bananas every time he sees a school bus on the road. Even if it's the weekend and we happen to drive by the bus garage, my son will point feverishly and shout, "Look daddy! School busses in the parking lot, daddy! School busses in the parking lot!" Score.
The premise is simple, yet leads to many wonderful adventures - Ms. Frizzle has to be teacher of the century, let alone the year. Instead of having her students sit around and watch boring film strips from the 70's, she goes above and beyond every day to make education fun. She has a pet lizard named Liz, always dresses in the theme of whatever she's teaching, and has an electric personality that keeps her students engaged from the first bell to the last. Oh, and she takes her students on daily field trips in a magic school bus that can transform, shrink and even time travel, making Ms. Frizzle's class the most hands-on educational experience of all time. Nothing is off limits, be it the depths of the sea or the infinite void of space, traveling through our blood stream and digestive system, exploring beehives and anthills, and even taking a first-hand look at prehistoric times. Is it really any wonder why her students are always so eager to learn?
I was heading into my teens when The Magic School Bus premiered in 1994, so I have no nostalgic attachment to it (although I did appreciate the books in my younger years). That being said, the show apparently did well enough to produce 52 episodes over the course of 4 seasons. Since this was my first time with the show, I was mostly concerned with how the educational material would be presented. Would it feel forced and dry like elementary school science class programming, or would each adventure feel genuine, allowing the information to roll out effortlessly with the story? I mean, kids have a short attention span, so if all the fun and excitement comes to a grinding halt every two minutes to allow Ms. Frizzle to prattle on like a textbook come to life, chances are they're going to lose interest. My son especially, since he's a bit younger than the suggested '4 and up' age recommendation.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the subject matter to always be on point, never hindering the show's ability to present us with new visuals and exciting events every step of the way. Despite the fact The Magic School Bus provides its young audience with a lot of information in any given episode, the show is consistently fun, and thanks to Ms. Frizzle's unique personality, it's also consistently funny. Ms. Frizzle is definitely the 'glue' of the show, but it would be a huge mistake to undermine the rest of the animated cast - her students. These kids could have been written as empty bodies, students that would merely be dragged along for the ride while the show attempted to teach and entertain. The writers seemingly knew this would have been a detriment to the show, because if the kids aren't relatable, than the kids at home aren't likely to respond, or maintain interest for that matter. No, each student has a very strong (and fun) personality, and not a single kid is exactly alike. The contrast between their characterizations are quite strong, actually, so no matter how your kid is 'wired', there's going to be at least one person on the show they'll identify with.
Another concern I had about The Magic School Bus, was that some of the material might have been a little scary, or at the very least, inappropriate for my child. It would have been easy for the show to utilize some mild violence for comedic effect (nothing extreme mind you, but it still sends the wrong message), but the show steers clear of anything questionable in that respect. However, I did find as an adult that the show contains some inappropriate puns. They're nothing to really complain about since they're subtle enough that your kid probably won't understand them until they're way too old to be watching the show, but if you're uncomfortable letting your kid hear such things as mild as they may be, you've been warned.
All in all, The Magic School Bus surpassed my expectations, delivering not only the educational goods, but being entertaining enough to keep my two year old glued to the television for the entirety of each episode. I'm glad I took the opportunity to introduce my child to the show, because he's a big, big fan of books. I tried to read The Magic School Bus to him before, but the books were too wordy and 'all over the place' (not in context, but in presentation), so I knew he wasn't going to get what was going on like he would with a Berenstein Bears book. But since this show is entertaining enough for him now, he'll be able to grow with the show and make more and more sense of things as time goes on. The upside to that? It means that he'll have a firm foundation as a toddler that this educational show is a ton of fun, so when he begins to understand in a couple of years that he's actually learning while watching, he won't be turned off by being 'tricked' with edutainment. So, I say forget the 4+ age recommendation; Go ahead and start your child as early as possible. Every kid is different, but I really don't think you have much to lose if you invest in The Magic School Bus - The Complete Series now. As an added bonus, you'll likely find the show to be as imaginative and wondrous as your kids will!
The video presentation (in an aspect ratio of 4:3) is adequate, but it's nothing to write home about, either. The entire show utilizes a lot of yellows, reds, greens and blues, but the image looks a little drab, somewhat washed out. This was to be expected from such a program for numerous reasons - The show could have been edited for broadcast on tape, the source may not have been in pristine condition after all these years, and I'm sure the encoding done by New Video Group or Scholastic Media isn't as pristine as something that Fox might be able to accomplish for The Simpsons or Family Guy. Still though, after a few minutes of watching you're pretty much acclimated to the look, and let's be honest - Your kid isn't going to care. Despite the slightly hampered, faded 'contrast', black levels are quite strong so dark areas in the program never look murky. Furthermore, the show seems to stay away from any kind of digital blocking or troubling aliasing, so The Magic School Bus never looks downright ugly.
Presented in stereo, The Magic School Bus, much like its video presentation, is adequate but nothing to write home about. The dialogue is clear and it's never hard to understand what people are saying, and the music and sound effects are never muffled, but the whole thing comes off sounding kind of flat. But, again, are your kids really going to care? Absolutely not. You'll probably need to turn up the volume more than you're used to in order to get the 'full effect' as was intended, but don't worry, this doesn't give way to distortion or clipping. For what it's worth, the encode is fine on a technical level.
The packaging sports a box housing 8 DVD's in 8 thinpacks. It's a plain packaging option, and this makes the box a bit thicker than modern DVD packaging probably should be, but they've gone above and beyond by including a lenticular cover.
There are no disc based extras across the 8 discs in this set, but considering the audience this set is meant for, that's not a bad thing. Wisely, Scholastic Media have included a book that treats kids to brain-busters (obviously not frustratingly difficult ones), trivia, experiments, as well as a section that helps parents to prepare lessons and learning options. Including such an activity book is exactly the kind of thing that educational DVD's should include more often, especially since this includes the parents in the activities as well. A nice touch by Scholastic Media, indeed.
That being said, it would have been nice if Scholastic Media could have come up with some on-disc material that was just as interactive as the activity book. DVD isn't exactly in its infancy, and I'm sure something simple could have been whipped up pretty quick.
The Magic School Bus is highly imaginative, educational programming that's both fun and funny, and for those that are especially careful of what their children see, it's also non-violent. Although the age recommendation is for children 4 and up, my 2 year old has had a blast watching these, and I feel he's going to benefit greatly from getting into real 'edutainment' programming at such an early age. This means that this show is really ideal for any tyke no matter how small, and considering it's entertaining enough to keep adults from feeling bored, viewing of The Magic School Bus can actually be a family activity. The supplemental material, which comes in the form of a children's book that includes a teaching guide for parents, really helps to solidify the notion that learning should involve the whole family. After all, if you don't seem interested in something, you can't really expect your kid to take an interest, can you? The Magic School Bus has seen other releases, sometimes with overlapping episodes, but this set contains all 52 wondrous episodes, 30 of which are brand spankin' new to DVD. That being said, it would have been nice if some activities were included on-disc, and the A/V presentation, although adequate, is flat all around. Recommended.