It’s time for finals week. Sharpen your number 2 pencils, as we present an audience participation exam to test your memory of the bounty of academic-themed television series that flooded the airwaves starting in the late 1960’s and continuing well afterwards to the present day. Shows about schooling were proving popular in all forms of television entertainment, not only as occasional inspirations for stories in such sitcoms as “Leave It To Beaver”, but in adult-oriented shows such as “Room 222″ and “The Paper Chase”. And there were those shows aimed at the “tweens”, such as the long-running, “Saved By the Bell”, “Welcome Back, Kotter”, and the nostalgic “Happy Days”.
Animation, as always, follows the suit of popular trends, and found target audiences for similar fare in the daily syndication and Saturday morning markets, both at grade school levels and among the older high-school crowds. In at least one instance, a network found opportunity to mix together both animated and live-action offerings for those of school age, combined for the anthology series, “ABC Afterschool Specials”. The same network would flood its Saturday morning lineup with educational animated music videos as interstitials, under the banner title, “Schoolhouse Rock”, with numbers that have become such a part of contemporary pop culture that they hardly need description past their titles (e.g., “I’m Just a Bill”; “Conjunction Junction (What’s Your Function?)”) As it would be “function”ally impossible to cover every school-related episode which thus appeared in this new wave of animated productions, I shall attempt to present in conclusion of this series a select grocery list of some of the best (and occasionally worst) productions to air, with a few select episode highlights along the way. This survey is by no means all-inclusive, and bloggers are invited to earn extra credit by listing their own candidates for inclusion in this final chapter of our textbook.
One of the earliest, and most lucrative, franchises to concentrate on school activities was the perennial The Archie Show series (Filmation, beginning 1968), centered upon the activities of Archie Andrews, Jughead Jones, dual girlfriends Betty and Veronica, and rival Reggie at Riverdale High. Spinning off from the ever-present comics series which spawned a still existing comics empire (one of the only non-super hero comics franchises still readily available anywhere comics are sold), the show was far from the first adaptation of the series to another medium. “Archie Andrews” had in fact appeared as a network radio series in 1943. But it was something new to Saturday morning, and, despite production values that don’t wear well under the scrutiny of a retrospective microscope, it seemed like everyone (including myself) was watching it. Not that I was entirely pleased with the product. For one thing, as a kid I hated rock music. Filmation, in trying to keep up to date, introduced into the series the concept of the lead characters having a rock band, “The Archies”, which would perform a musical number each week, to the same cycle of animation repeated over and over. The image of one of the girls whacking a tambourine into her hip again and again eventually became etched permanently into the memory. While the music was certainly not hard rock and closer to bubblegum, it was the segment of the show I dreaded, and through which I waited impatiently for it to be over to get to the next cartoon.
Nevertheless, other viewers felt exactly the opposite, rocketing the original song, “Sugar Sugar” to number 1 on the charts. The music video concept would set a tone for the whole Industry (though in fact it can be traced back to earlier roots such as “The Beatles” from King Features, and even Hanna-Barbera’s The Impossibles), resulting in many a subsequent series copycatting the format Hanna-Barbera would run rampant with it for awhile, incorporating it into such productions as the “Catanooga Cats”, “The Pebbles and Bamm Bamm Show”, Archie comics spinoff “Josie and the Pussycats”, and as underscore for every chase in “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?”, to name a few. In fact, while Hanna and Barbera have openly admitted resemblances to and inspiration from “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” for the Scooby Doo gang, I believe equal inspiration is attributable to their desire to derivatively mine gold based upon the success of Archie in the preceding year. This derivation may be most supported by HB’s inclusion of a dog in the gang – which had been another signature revision incorporated into the Filmation series, by inclusion of the character “Hot Dog” (who, if he had any prior roots at all in the comic books, certainly had not been a prominent feature player in the manner in which he was used in the show). Filmation used a different approach to HB to provide their dog with audible dialog and reactions to story events – instead of a talking mutt with an “R” speech impediment (an idea HB had had kicking around since the Jetsons’ Astro), or a pantomime dog such as Snoopy in the Charlie Brown “Peanuts” specials, Filmation revived an idea dating back to theatrical animation – of having its dog’s thoughts projected as an ESP audio signal in asides directly to the audience, while the world around him remains unaware of such commentary. (Earliest examples of this technique would trace back to Mickey’s Kangaroo (1935) and Frank Tashlin’s Porky’s Spring Planting (1938).) It was an economic concept, obviously saving on animating lip synchronization, which would have fit well into Filmation’s penny-pinching production priorities. The success of the concept would later prove inspirational to Film Roman, who would follow suit in producing specials and multiple seasons of Saturday morning cartoons featuring a thought-projecting Garfield. Besides these innovations, Filmation’s series in actuality bordered on the routine down to the downright corny, but at least was sparked by the memorable voice work of Dal McKennon as Archie and Howard Morris as Jughead. It was a franchise that Filmation would not let go, leading to spinoff after spinoff, not the least of which included the variants, “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch” and the spinoff from a spinoff, “The Groovie Ghoulies”. Long after Filmation’s demise, the Sabrina franchise would receive renewed popularity as a live-action sitcom, and as an animated series spinning off from same produced by DIC and Savage Studios in 1999.
Out of chronology, mention has to be made of a later Filmation project known as “Hero High”, one half of the Kid Super Power Hour With Shazzam! (1981), the title alone of which should provide some signal that the whole affair is a slapdash contrivance of disparate elements. It was mixed together with Captain Marvel cartoons, and cornball live action wraparounds featuring real-life counterparts of the Hero High gang supposedly performing as a rock band. No copies of the Hero High shorts have surfaced on the internet, so all we are left with is the advertising trailer and the live wraparaounds. They do not bode well of the show’s actual content. For one thing, the whole concept was an attempt to save a failed project already started, when attempts to capitalize on a superpower story arc in the Archie comics fell through because the contract for license to the Archie character properties had expired. Thus, the new school for junior superheroes was created in place of Riverdale High, and all the Archie principals redesigned into generic knock-offs. The promotional trailer demonstrates that the series was nominally being played for laughs, describing life at the school as a “free for all” where students train by using their super powers upon each other. Sounds like a destructive proposition from the start, making one wonder how they expected the school itself to stand up to the wear and tear. Add to this a musical underscore to the trailer that sounds like music lifted straight out of the tracks of Filmation’s Tom and Jerry cartoons, and the thought of actually viewing the series makes one want to cringe. This artifact may be better left lost in the morgue of time.
Having mentioned Charlie Brown, we must also give attention to the long history of school-related stories to come from the “Peanuts” specials and movies produced by Lee Mendelson/Bill Melendez productions since the early 1960’s. School was of course the primary location of the Peanuts gang in the original Schulz comic strips whenever they were not depicted around their own homes, so naturally it would become a central locale of their animated world. Their very first special, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), mostly takes place in the school auditorium, where they are rehearsing for the annual Christmas play, with Linus restoring the proper Christmas mood with an inspirational recitation from the scriptures on stage. Other standout episodes include You’re in Love, Charlie Brown (6/12/67), which memorably sets up the situation of dealing with the pangs of a schoolboy crush for the nameless “Little Red Haired Girl”, while trying to simultaneously endure the rigors of an average school schedule. This was among the first installments of the series to add the innovation of never including actual spoken dialog for any adult. Instead, the “sounds” of their speech are produced by means of a muted trombone emitting squeaks and squawks resembling the patterns of a spoken conversation. It features highlight moments such as Charlie rising from his desk to use the pencil sharpener in hopes of whispering a greeting to the girl at her nearby desk, but not only chickening out without saying a word, but sharpening his ball point pen. A frustrated outburst sends Charlie to the principal’s office, where Charlie tactfully turns on the charm in the most feeble effort ever to get on the principal’s good side: “You have a nice office. How are you and the P.T.A. getting along?” Charlie’s observations of the situation during lunch hour are also quoteworthy: “There’s nothing like unrequited love to drain all the flavor out of a peanut butter sandwich.” As the last day of school winds down, Charlie misses every opportunity to introduce himself to his lady love, finally losing her in the crowd boarding the school bus, and helplessly watching the bus drive away for the summer. But in his hand, deposited there during the scuffle of passing students, he finds a note” “I like you, Charlie Brown”, signed by the little red haired girl. Charlie shouts and dances up the street toward home, walking on a psychological cloud, thinking aloud “Just wait till September!”, and envisioning all the happy times he’ll spend with his new sweetheart – until he pauses at the crest of the hill before disappearing from view, turns to the camera, and blurts out the realization, “Good grief! How will I LIVE until September?”
You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown (10/29/72) provides a vehicle for Linus, in a setting rarely touched upon by prior animated productions – the campaign trail of running for student body president. Charlie Brown’s sister Sally thinks Linis will be the perfect candidate to get things done around the school, such as fixing those stupid school lockers that won’t open. Linus, ever the poet when it comes to speechmaking, counters his opponent’s weak nomination speech of merely trying to “do the best job that I can”, with promise to “purge the kingdom”, and “bring down false idols in high places”. One of the kids at such moment makes the observation, “I wonder why the principal looks so pale?” In one of its funniest sequences, Linus is booked onto a local radio talk show for a chance to speak directly to the voters, with his sister Lucy screening the calls. Linus barely gets a word in during the entire broadcast, as the callers are all of the common varieties capable of giving a talk show host recurring nightmares. The caller whose speech repats the phrase “You know” a hundred times per minute. The “first time caller but long time listener” who asks a question completely off the subject of the election. The random caller who has dialed a wrong number. And the caller who beats around the bush with endless jabber in attempt to lead up to her question, so long that when she is asked point blank what her question is, she forgets its subject entirely. Then, the political scandal, as Linus changes the subject in one of his final speeches before the election, to declare the praises of the “Great Pumpkin” – becoming an instant laughing stock. Linus’s popularity poll drops from a landslide majority to a dead-even heat. The final deciding vote winds up being cast by his opponent – who amazingly reveals. “I think he would make a better president than I would”, and gives Linus the victory. Linus heads for his first meeting with the principal, and Sally encourages him to really throw his weight around and initiate his reforms. As the meeting concludes, a tremulous Linus emerges from the door, nervously promising not to do anything without first consulting the principal. Sally asks “Well, I hope your told him.” Linus responds, “As a matter of fact, he told me.” Sally stands silent for a moment, then shouts “HE SOLD OUT!” Screaming down the corridor that elected officers are all alike, and full of nothing but unfulfilled promises, she kicks at her stuck locker door before exiting – and the door slowly creaks open of its own initiative for the fade out.
Among my all time favorites, and the film which inspired me to take up the hobby of amateur animation, was A Boy Named Charlie Brown (12/4/69), the first feature adaptation of the Peanuts strip. Amidst chances to revisit nearly every famous setup for the strip’s action, we of course revisit the school world. Charlie is facing the realization that he’s a failure at everything – a conclusion that is reinforced by a psychiatric examination from Lucy’s roadside “Doctor’s booth – illustrated with slides – and from continuing to lose down to the level of a routine game of tic tac toe scratched in the dirt between himself and Linus. Linus insists he needs to keep trying new things until he finds something he’s good at. Lucy overheard, and mockingly suggests he volunteer for the big spelling bee in class that afternoon, By pure dumb luck, Charlie keeps drawing words he’s “well acquainted with”, such as “failure” and “insecure”, and WINS the first round. He stays up all night with Linus trying to memorize the whole dictionary and every spelling rule for the next day’s all-school finals. By morning, random words and rules are spinning in visualization around his head, and Charlie is mumbling them wrong in a sleepy stupor. Only with Snoopy’s help (provided by playing on mouth harp outside the window the first notes of an “I before E” song Charlie had been studying the previous evening) does Charlie prevail again.
He is carried home on the shoulders of an adoring entourage, as a conquering hero, “Champion Charlie Brown”. But just as he is settling in with a sigh of relief, “Thank goodness that’s over”, Lucy bursts his bubble with the remark, “What do you mean, over?” Unbeknownst to Charlie, by winning the school championship, he has now been automatically entered in the National Elimination Spelling Bee in New York City. Charlie now faces the unending pressure of a champ who must continue to defend his crown, and reacts as only Charlie Brown can – with a cry of “AUGGGGGGH!!” Many misadventures follow on his trip to New York City, including complications when he is given Linus’s security blanket to bring him good luck, but carelessly misplaces it upon arriving at the hotel, causing Linus and Snoopy to follow him to the big city and engage in fruitless search for the lost blanket – which finally turns up in place of the rag Charlie has used to shine his shoes. The three head for the finals, while the gang at home watches on television. (Back then, no one would have covered such an event except PBS.) Charlie makes it through several turns with more words he is acquainted with (such as “disastrous”, and, to Lucy’s surprise and confusion, intimate familiarity with the word, “fussbudget”). But the snag arrives at being given the word, “Beagle”. Everyone assumes this will be no problem, as that is Snoopy’s breed. But Charlie’s luck and memory finally run out, as he spells the word, “B – E – A – G- E – L”. Everybody screams in dismay or disgust, the loudest being Charlie. Charlie, Linus and Snoopy ride back on an otherwise empty, lonely bus, as Charlie sinks deeper and deeper into the seat and into melancholy until he can’t be seen. Instead of the committee that wished him bon voyage on departure, his arrival home is to an empty bus terminal, “I guess nobody realized that we were returning”, remarks Linus. Charlie returns home, pulls the windowshades, shuts off the lights, and becomes a recluse in bed, refusing to go to school the next day. His absence allows his baseball team to win the first game they’ve won all season. But Linus, attempting to cheer Charlie up, again provides the words of inspiration. “But did you notice something, Charlie Brown? The world didn’t come to an end.” After Linus leaves, Charlie takes the words to heart, finally manages to put on his clothes, and steps outside, to find life pretty much as usual, with no one taking particular notice of him. The only odd sight is Lucy in a field, holding a football in place kicker position with no one else around. Figuring she has no idea of his presence, Charlie sees the opportunity of a lifetime – to finally kick the football when Lucy isn’t looking. He creeps stealthily up to within running distance, and charges at the ball with full speed. As inevitably happens, Lucy pulls the ball away at the last second, fully expecting Charlie’s approach all the time, and leaves Charlie to flip through the air and land wuth a thud flat on his back. Lucy stands over the prone figure of Charlie, and in delightful underplay, simply utters, “Welcome home, Charlie Brown.”
Next we have a fun piece that never saw the light of day, except in failed pitch to the network execs – Jay Ward’s unsold pilot, Rah Rah Woozy (1980). The typically off-the-wall plot deals with two small inhabitants of the science lab at Woozy State university. Morey Mouse and Hamilton Hamster. What is uncanny is that, with the aid of current retrospective vision, one can realize that Ward potentially had something here, in that the characters are very much the early prototypes of Pinky and the Brain, in opposite order, without the megalomania. Loyal to dear old Woozy to a fault, they are seen in the opening credits performing in a football halftime game as drum carrier and drum major, despite the fact that the human members of the band are oblivious to their presence on the field, and stomping them into the ground. In daily life, Morey (voiced by Bill Scott) keeps in shape by running a laboratory maze in track team outfit and timing himself for record performance with stopwatch. Dimwitted Hamilton (voiced by Daws Butler) spends his leisure time peering into a laboratory microscope slide at “microbevision”, which he describes as “better than television, except you get only one channel”. But mostly, Morey is an inventive genius, and Hamilton his assistant and ”guinea pig” in testing them out. Morey’s attentions this day are turned to the big game between Woozy State and Wrecker Tech. He asks Hamilton to look through a telescope out to the football field, and asks what does he see. Hamilton ecstatically responds, “Crabgrass!” But Morey wants him to see the coach, Weepy Mudbank, in his usual state of crying jags and total depression. Why? In his forty year coaching history, he has never won a game – and today is his last game before retirement. (Did he ever coach Wottsamatta U?) Morey is determined today’s game will be different, with his latest invention – a radio-controlled football. Hamilton mistakes the ball hovering over its control unit as “A big flying walnut.” But Morey demonstrates by giving it verbal commands through a microphone, sending it sailing under its own power to the dormitories and back again. Hamilton gives the mike a try, issuing commands of the kind one would give to a puppy dog. “Sit. Roll Over. Play dead.” The obedient ball follows instructions to the letter – even deflating itself on the last command. A little air from a bicycle pump provided by Morey, and it’s off to the football field. Meanwhile, the coach issues final whimpering instructions to his team to get in there and fight, fight, fight. The team begins brawling in the locker room. “Not here, you dum dums. On the field!“, the coach wails.
Hamulton and Morey smuggle the radio ball and remote into the 30 yard marher along the sidelines of the field, then switch balls by dumping the ball and themselves into a nearby water bucket, which is carried out to the team. A player takes a ladle of water, and finds Hamilton inside. “I’ve heard of polluted water, but this is ridiculous.” As the bucket is carried back to the sidelines, Morey and Hamilton take positions by the remote. As Woozy’s quarterback fades back behind his own goal line, the perfect target for a sack, Morey launches the ball from his hands, to sail clear across the field. Receiver Flash Flub is in position at the opposite goal, but trips and falls inside the end zone. With precision, Morey guides the ball to land directly on “Flub’s flab”, scoring a touchdown. Another touchdown results when Morey redirects the ball upon kickoff to never reach the opposing team, and to chase down a Woozy man to carry the ball (in spite of his running away). Excitable Hamilton now tells the ball to really bust things wide open. On command, the ball self-destructs. “Gee, it sure takes things literally”, shrugs Hamilton. Without a ball, the radio device is useless, and there is only one way left to influence the game. Grabbing an oxygen tank from the field first aid station, Morey instructs Hamilton to take off his clothes. He then opens the tank valve and asks Hamilton to take a deep breath – inflating the hamster into the shape of a football. “Sort of a guinea pigskin, wouldn’t you say?”, says Hamilton.
Hamilton is received by a Wrecker Tech man, but extends his arms to tickle the player’s ribs, causing a fumble. Hamilton finds a Woozy player, and carries him over the goal for a touchdown instead of the other way around. (This play defies the rules, as Hamilton’s walking on the ground should have downed the ball before the goal line.) It’s time for the extra point kick that will decide the game. The kick looks good, but Hamilton gets stuck on the crossbar, hanging from his paws. “Chin yourself, Hamilton”, calls Morey. No can do. “No muscles?” inquires Morey. “No chin”, responds Hamilton. “I hate to do this, ” says Morey, producing a peashooter, and scoring a direct hit on Hamilton’s rear. Hamilton leaps with renewed energy, and is over the uprights. Coach Mudbank, finally with a smile on his face, is carried off the field victorious – in a dead faint on a stretcher. After the game, a battered Hamilton unwinds in a hot bath of a solution percolating over a Bunsen burner in the lab, while Morey reads a post-game interview where the coach attributed the victory to the excellent physical shape of his team. Hamilton agrees. “Those guys wrecked you”, notes Morey – “What makes you think you were in good physical shape?” “If I hadn’t been, they’d’ve killed me,” responds Hamilton.
A series that looked like it could have had promise based on the pilot was Galaxy High (TMG Entertainment, 1986). The original episode, ”Welcome to Galaxy High”, moves along at a nice clip, and has much of the style and visual imagination of a classic “Jetsons” episode, telling the tale of two Earth students, a boy and girl, chosen to be the first exchange students to an outer space high school, based upon different merits. The boy (Doyle Cleverlobe) does not actually live up to his name, his claim to fame being prowess as an all-around athlete, while he has let his grades slip below where they should be for his intelligence, in favor of hogging the limelight before his adoring fans. Aimee Brightower, however, is a polar opposite. Studious to a fault, she has top-notch grades, but has concentrated on them over and above efforts at popularity. As a result, despite her general attractiveness, she is a social wallflower, and not considered “cool” among her peers. The two suddenly find themselves thrust together on a commuter saucer, travelling light years to another galaxy in Earth’s first student exchange. Doyle views Aimee as just another chick, not quite up to his tastes, and directs her not to make it appear that they have any personal connections when they reach the school, so that it won’t cramp his ability to zero in upon impressing the local female action. Aimee is more than happy to announce she doesn’t plan to have anything to do with him.
They are greeted at the school by Milo de Venus, student body president – a short, fat nerdy humanoid type, indistinguishable from an Earth student, except for his six arms. He shows them their assigned school lockers – each of which are fully computerized with robotic artificial intelligence. Aimee’s locker is efficient, gracious, and happy to serve, while Doyle’s has an aggressive, street smart attitude, and insists “Books only. No food, no junk, and no smelly gym socks.” Milo informs Doyle it was the only other locker willing to take on a human. Milo next attempts to direct them to the gym – but can’t seem to find it on the school grounds. No wonder, as the building is also robotic, and has been off somewhere keeping limber itself by taking a walk. Hearing there is a ladies’ gym class going on inside, Doyle senses action is near, and prepares to turn on the charm. But the ladies (given their variety, one might use the term loosely) pass right by him, and are instantly attracted to Aimee, wanting to befriend her and find everything about what an Earth girl is like. Doyle is baffled at being entirely overlooked, until Milo fills him in that here, males outnumber females three to one, so the girls are pretty choosy about who they keep company with. As Aimee finds herself for the first time in her life the center of attraction, and is escorted by a posse of her admirers around town, learning to blend right in with a complete makeover in which she even gets to choose her own aesthetically-pleasing skin color of blue, Doyle tries to cope with being a social flop for the first time in his life. Though not used to fraternizing with those he used to consider his competition, Doyle tries his best to see if he can at least fit in with the male contingent of the student population – and immediately crosses paths with the bully clique of the school, led by a monster-face bruiser named Beef Bonk.
Things almost get abusive, until Beef learns that Doyle is an athlete. He proposes their dispute be settled via public humiliation on the “sukkleball” court. Milo informs him the game is similar to Earth hockey – but the puck is alive. One wishes the sport had been as well thought through as Harry Potter Quidditch, as the final match is a little anti-climactic, but it at least gives Aimee and the girls a chance to finally back Doyle as a rooting section, inspiring him to defeat the villain. The project showed promise, with interesting character and set designs, likeable personalities, and a decent share of laughs, at least in its pilot. However, I also cut to the chase to see the final episode, and noted it seemed to be retreading themes that had already appeared in the opening, leading me to speculate that the writers blew most of their wad of creativity on the first episode, and could not maintain its momentum for the long run. The show was thus cancelled after its initial run of 13 episodes.
Police Academy – The Series (Warner Brothers, 1988-89), based on the live action film of the same name, was a project that snuck in under my radar, which I never watched during its run, and I have only just exposed myself to by means of its premier episode. Having also never seen the feature, I had no basic introduction to its large cast of characters, and had to piece things together from what little information the pilot could provide. Premise for the sequel appears weak, as all the participants are already graduates and real cops rather than rookie students.
Nevertheless, Officer Mahoney and a motley squad of assistant officers (including a bazooka-happy officer with emotionless read and itchy trigger finger, an obligatory fat cop who’d rather carry around chicken drumsticks than his revolver, a cop who uses his megaphone to project unexpected vocal sound effects, and numerous other nerds, dunderheads and bunglers), louse up the apprehension of a group of villains known as the Clown Gang, while their short-fuse superior officer, Harris, is sent to the wrong address for backup by one of Mahoney’s squad reading the address upside down, causing a police raid upon a ladies dress shop by mistake. The blunder costs Harris his supervisory position, resulting in a reassignment back to Police Academy in a teaching position. What is weak is that, despite this demotion from the top, Harris somehow claims the authority to drag all of Mahoney’s squad back with him for a course of retraining. Firstly, authority for this act appears contrived. Secondly, if Mahoney’s been such a thorn in his side, wouldn’t you think Harris would be happier to be getting away from him, rather than dragging him along in a feeble hope for revenge? But nobody’s supposed to think these things out. One also gets the impression that the whole show intends to spend very little time in the classroom, concentrating on lame slapstick efforts to catch hoodlums instead of absorbing any new training. It’s just another cops and robbers show, with little to offer for original comedy, and no particular story inspiration except to make a buck in a quick half-baked spinoff.
Scooby Doo and the Ghoul School (Hanna-Barbera, 10/16/88) – One of a series of made-for-TV feature length specials produced for syndication over the course of a few years, featuring some of the first reasonably high production values for the series, generally exceeding those of its Saturday morning predecessors. No sign of the Mystery Machine. Shaggy has a new job, and a new red van, driving through a spooky forest to reach Grimwood finishing school, where he’s signed on at an employment agency to be the new gym instructor, with Scooby and Scrappy Doo along as assistants. Of course, Grimwood is not your average finishing school. It’s enrollment consists of the children of the famous Universal monsters, including daughters of Dracula, Frankenstein and bride (with standard lightning bolt pattern of white in her hair, and a first name of “Elsa”), the wolfman, the mummy (the youngest of the ghouls, actually a precocious grade schooler), and a ghostly phantom (is she somehow related to the Phantom of the Opera?) As usual, Scrappy takes everything strange and weird in stride, while Shaggy and Scoob look for any way out, but find themselves stuck with an iron clad contract. Also included at the school are a campus mascot (Matches, a baby dragon), and a disembodied hand that must be related to Thing from the Addams Family. The script gets complicated with an ongoing rivalry between the school and a “normal” military academy in athletics, a witch named Revolta and her plant-based henchman, the Grim Creeper, who want to convert the Grimwood students into an army of mindless zombies to do their bidding, and an unexpected allegiance between Scooby’s gang ant the military cadets to effect a rescue of the girls – all punctuated by the usual spooky run of macabre gags and one-liners.
Out of chronological sequence, a considerably less-inspired project built on nearly the identical premise was Rick Moranis in Gravedale High (Hanna-Barbera. 1990). Without much if any backstory explanation, we find Moranis voicing the only human professor at an all monster university. The principal is a female blue witch with a detachable iron hand. The school’s caretaker-custodian is a white faced skeletal zombie type. Students include obligatory Frankenstein, Dracula, Mummy, and other descendants, with new counterparts to Peter Lorre, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Invisible Man, and a few new types thrown in such as a medusa character whose snakes in her hairdo seem to have a mind of their own. Many of these students have more of an attitude problem than the students of Grimwood academy, but can ocasionally be compelled to fall into line – mostly from learning lessons by the school of hard knocks. Moranis’s celebrity status, however, seems to be his only excuse for inclusion in the series, as I find his reads entirely uninspired compared to his feature performances. Writing quality also feels lazy, with little originality and at most mild smiles instead of belly laughs. It felt like Moranis didn’t have his heart in this production – and neither did NBC, who only bought the obligatory 13 episodes.
Although opening credits have become truncated in recent seasons where many episodes do not include the traditional “blackboard gag”, we’ve spent over 30 years watching Bart Simpson in detention at Springfield Elementary on The Simpsons (1989 – present), writing new sentences each week 100 times on the blackboard as punishment for the week’s latest offense against Principal Skinner, Miss Crabapple, or groundskeeper Willie. Bart has indeed been a denizen of the schoolhouse, among my favorite of his pranks being repainting the lines on the faculty parking lot during the night so that each of the cars are parked imperceptibly closer to one another the next morning – and no one can open their car doors to get out. Bart’s school experiences have included frequent run-ins with school bully Nelson, known for his deriding “Ha Haa” laugh and for regularly taking tribute in the form of lunch money with the help of a two-boy goon squad. Occasionally, this bad element has even lured Bart into conduct over the line, such as sawing the head off the statue of the town’s founding father, and pinching a video game at Christmas by shoplifting (“Four finger discount, dude.”). He also finds himself sticking up for his best friend Millhouse, a nerdy misfit in glasses who never seems to make it into student cliques outside of Bart’s friendship. Bart’s educational record is generally as bad as his behavior, while his sister Lisa overachieves in every endeavor.
In “Bart Gets an “F” (10/11/90), he is on the verge of being held back a grade unless he gets a passing mark on an exam, and actually tries his best to break himself of his old delaying and procrastination habits to study over a weekend, including slapping himself silly across the face in effort to keep his attention span going. He still fails the written exam by one question, and moans that despite his best efforts, he’ll never succeed – but blurts out an analogous parallel to a historical event from his studies, which Miss Crabapple interprets as “applied knowledge” – just enough to up his grade to a C-. In the timeless world of Springfield, it seems as though we’ll never see Bart or Lisa move on to high school or college (except in dream sequences), but at least Bart won’t have to repeat the same grade without promotion for another thirty-something years.
Here’s one I knew absolutely nothing about, but was steered to by an office associate, who had fond memories of the production and insisted I check it out. The time was well spent. Morris Goes To School (Churchill Films, 1989, John Clark Matthews, dir.) appears to be an independent production with no major studio or network affiliation. It was submitted to several film festivals, and won several awards, then possibly went straight to home video. (If anyone knows more about its screening history, feel free to submit.) It is an entertaining and well-produced two reeler, combining 3D and 2D animation, based upon a children’s book, about a talking moose (voiced by the late Will Ryan) who, upon collecting a few stray pennies along country roads, decides to go into town to purchase some candy. He quickly finds that life among humans is much more complicated than he imagined. Walking into a store, he announces that he’d like to purchase some candy – only to be told that it’s a fish market. “Can’t you read?”, says the proprietor, pointing to his window sign. Morris is totally confused and has never encountered letters before. The shop owner points across the street to a real candy store, and Morris is innocently impressed that he could tell what the store was from all the way across the street. He enters the second shop, where gumdrops are a penny a piece. Morris lays out his money, and asks for four gumdrops. But the owner points out that he has six pennies. Morris confesses he can only count up to four – the number of points on his forward hooves. The kindly shopkeeper realizes that Morris is in definite need of education, and escorts him to a local grade school.
Morris is absolutely charming in his “born yesterday” naivete, thrilled to be offered his own desk, and full of curiosity. The students around him are amused, but thankfully are of tolerant nature, and don’t abuse their laughter to raise it to the level of ridicule. Clever misunderstandings arise when the teacher starts drawing letters of the alphabet and pronouncing them. Morris presumes a “B” refers to the insect, and ducks for cover, trying not to be stung. A “C” brings happy thoughts, as he imagines himself at the seashore, swimming, sailing, and the like. It is clear there is much he will need to absorb. Morris also has trouble conjugating verbs, stating “This are fun”, and going through every possible wrong alternative of the word before being directed to the word “is”. He confesses his counting dilemma on account of his hooves, but the teacher points out that he is better equipped than any of the other students to count by digits, by merely adding the points of his antlers, bringing his counting capacity to 12. He thinks the lunch hour bell is someone ringing at the front door, but learns it is mealtime, during which he grazes on the schoolyard lawn, while some of the kids observe that they’ll never need a lawn mower again. Morris adapts to art lessons by learning how to “hoof paint”, then joins in a singing session with a catchy original song presented in 2D style, an anthem to learning entitled “Feed Your Brain.” A final bell sounds, and Morris thinks it is lunchtime again, but finds it’s time to go home. He is sad to go, but happy to find he can come back for more the next day. He celebrates completing his first day of school by returning to the candy store with more pennies, which now he correctly counts to 5, and even uses the word “is” in a sentence properly. The owner is impressed at his achievement, and Morris adds that he learned something even more from his experience. “I learned there is a lot I didn’t know.” I too learned as well, that occasionally this rule applies equally to my own knowledge of quality productions.
Another dependable source of laughter from the educational system was Tiny Toon Adventures (Steven Spielberg/Warner, 1990-1992). Many episodes from this show have been spotlighted in my previous articles, and the show was always among my particular favorites, which I watched religiously each weekday. It marked the triumphant return of Warner to television animation, and the first new product featuring the classic Warner characters since “The Bugs Bunny Show” and Looney Tunes compilation specials for CBS (with the exception of a handful of original specials, including “A Connecticut Rabbit In King Arthur’s Court”, “Carnival of the Animals”, a Christmas special, and “Bugs Bunny’s Busting Out All Over”). Bugs is the dean of Acme Looniversity, a hallowed institution dedicated to teaching a new generation of toons the ropes of how to commit animated mayhem. His faculty includes Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Granny, Sylvester, and Taz, among others, each of whom bring their own specialties into play in their instruction (particularly Taz, who teaches courses in devouring and destruction). Pete Puma is janitor/custodian. Mama Bear of the three bears works in the cafeteria. And the list of cameos goes on.
The show maintained a good pulse on themes and variations of the life and problems of junior high and high school. There were many notable moments, such as “The Learning Principal”, where the emotional turmoil of receiving instructions to report to the principal’s office are explored – with hilarious parallel to “walking the last mile” of death row, driven home by Hamton Pig impersonating Pat O’ Brien’s clergyman role in Warner’s “Angels With Dirty Faces”. “One Minute ‘Til Three” captures the angst of an unprepared student (Plucky Duck) agonizing over how to delay being called upon for a pop quiz and inevitable extra homework assignment if he gives the wrong answer, praying for the clock to strike three to start the weekend. “Prom-ise Her Anything” allows the whole cast to shine, as everyone endures the embarrassment of lining up dates for the Junior Prom (spiced with some matchmaking for a lover’s knot between the unlikely couple of spoiled brat rich kid Montana Max and animal abusing dimwit Elmyra), and Buster Bunny’s hapless efforts to learn to dance (taking instruction from old Bugs Bunny clips of his frantic impressions of Danny Kaye). In “Class Cut-Up”. Biology dissection offers an opportunity for a comeback for Michigan J. Frog, presented to Hamton Pig as his supposedly-deceased dissection subject, but revealing only to Hamton that he is very much alive and kicking. School bullying and the inevitable fight would be explored in “Hero Hamton”. The ever-problematic school locker would provide inspiration for “Open and Shut Case”, where Hamton receives an academic reward of a new computerized high tech locker, but loses its combination. “Born To Be Riled” would explore placing friendships at risk by carrying practical jokes and comedic ridicule too far. And curriculum would be added to on occasion, to allow for everything from studies of wild takes, impersonation of famous celebrities, and even producing a black and white silent movie. The show’s two seasons and subsequent specials covered a lot of ground, generally with a high degree of hilarity, and even though episodes periodically had an unusual rubbery look, animation was generally of top notch for what was then available in the industry, providing a real breath of fresh air for a TV market that had been largely devoid of anything reminiscent of theatrical-era humor for over a decade.
Spielberg’s stablemate to Tiny Toons, Animaniacs , featured two notable school episodes. “Chalkboard Bungle” (10/4/93) introduces a schoolteacher (Miss Flamiel), hired by Board Chairman Plotz for her reputation as a strict disciplinarian, to educate the out of control Warner Brothers and Warner Sister (who are seen out the window, having converted their water tower into an airplane ride). Her reputation is well deserved, as she chastises studio guard Ralph for using the double negative “ain’t never”, and Plotz for chewing gum and not sitting up straight, etching “F”s on their foreheads with a marker pen. In a studio schoolhouse, Flamiel awaits her new class, whom Ralph delivers in a nailed crate, marked “Volatile Contents.” As Flamiel opens the crate with a crowbar, the Warners appear, breaking into impromptu song, and stacking textbooks from the bookshelves into Flamiel’s hands to teach them everything, causing her to be buried in a falling tower of books. “This is not a music hall”, shouts Flamiel. “Now find your seats.” “Here’s mine” respond each of the Warners, bending over to show their posteriors. “Bet you don’t have trouble finding yours”, says Yakko, observing the teacher’s large rear end. Finally at their desks, the Warners are told by Flamiel that they will now recite the Pledge of Allegiance. “Repeat after me…” she begins. “Repeat after me…” chime the Warners in unison. Flamiel tries to stop this: “Wait until I start, then repeat after me.” But the Warners repeat her every word, until conversation gets so frustrating, Flamiel runs screaming from the room – and the Warners follow right after her with identical mimics of her scream.
When things finally settle down, Yakko asks if she wants to see their homework. Flamiel asks how they can have homework on the first day of school. Dot responds “Extra credit.” No matter, because they can’t show it to her anyway, as the dog ate it – as we see Wakko chewing it to shreds. Flamiel finds questions and answers can be just as frustrating. Yakko is asked to count to 100. He begins, “I, 2, skip a few, 99, 100.” Flamiel asks for all the numbers. Yakko replies, “Hey, it’s only a six minute cartoon.” Asking Wakko to multiply results in him splitting into a dozen duplicates and asking, “How’s this?” Wakko also won’t define the word “procrastination”, responding, “I’ll tell you later.” Falmiel threatens to use corporal punishment. “You mean that guy?” asks Yakko, pointing to a burly military man waiting in the doorway, clenching his fists in anticipation. Yakko thinks conjugation of a verb is a dirty word, and tries to dismiss the audience from observing with a wave of “Goodnight, everybody.” As Flamiel writes on the blackboard, the Warners cavort with paddleballs and pogo sticks, returning to their desks before Flamiel can turn around. “I know what you’re doing. I have eyes in the back of my head”, says Flamiel. “So do we”, respond the Warners, turning their heads 180 degrees to reveal them (instead of two, Wakko has about sixteen of them). Flamiel has had enough, and starts marking their foreheads with “F”s. When she applies the letter to Wakko’s hat, Wakko grits his teeth, builds up steam, and explodes like a cartoon bomb, as the scene fades out on Miss Flamiel. We resume at the end of the school day, as Ralph returns to puck up the crate. Flamiel claims she’s done with them, and for Ralph to take the crate away. But it’s not Flamiel. As Ralph exits, lugging the seemingly heavier crate, a zipper is pulled on Flamiel’s face to receal that the “teacher” is only a costume, inside of which are the Warners, who shout, “Recess!” and depart. Back at the water tower, a crane lifts the crate to drop it into the top of the tower, but the voice of Flamiel is heard inside, shrieking, “Let me out! I’ll give you an F, an F, an F!!!”
By the broadcast date of “Wakko’s America” (10/12/93), Flamiel has learned a thing or two about teaching the Warners – by learning to adapt and play things by their own game. She finds they respond to questions and answers by converting the classroom into a mock duplicate of the stage of “Jeopardy”, with contestant’s buzzers and a category board that includes the Daily Double. Wakko draws the answer, “The names of all 50 states and their capitals.” He performs an elaborate song running through the entire list, and waits for the ringing bell that will signal his response is correct. Instead, he hears a buzzer, as Flamiel disqualifies his response, as it was not phrased in the form of a question.
Disney’s Goof Troop would feature occasional episodes centered on school experiences for Max and P.J. One of the most memorable was “Axed By Addition” (9/7/92). P.J. is facing a math exam, and cramming the night before to get the operations and equations into his head. But his brain is freezing up with an absolute mental block to absorption of the information. His dad. Pete, enters his room to find the floor littered with crumpled papers with failed attempts to arrive at the desired sums. He emphasizes that P.J.’s head has his pop’s brains inside it, and can be made to do whatever it sets its mind to. However, his mood is utterly possessive, as if he personally owns what is inside P.J.’s head. P.J. timidly voices a “pure hypothetical” as to what would happen if he possibly failed. Pete erupts in outrage at the thought of anyne disgracing the family brains, and blurts out that P.J. would be grounded for life. As Pete leaves the room, P.J. looks at the window, and imagines it with iron bars, and himself inside in prison stripes, and bearing the long white beard of an old man. He shouts out the window for his only possible source of help – “MAX!!” Max arrives, and offers P.J. two choices – teach him how to cheat, or how to become a brain boy for life. P.J. opts for the more difficult route of brains. Max thus constructs out of hi-fi equipment, kitchen utensils, and various bric-a-brac a device for education by force. Strapping P.J. down in his bed, Max’s contraption offers the incentive of P.J’s favorite candy bars when he answers a question correctly, and the plastering of his forehead with raw eggs when he answers wrong. He starts firing rapid fire math questions at P.J., who spends the entire night in the torture device, getting candy bars only by lucky guesses, and constantly being deluged in egg whites.
By morning, he is assisted to school, barely able to weakly stagger his way into class (also having missed breakfast, as one look at an egg carton has sent him into climb-the-wall fits). While Max insists he’s going to ace this test, P.J. takes one look at the paper, and sees a spiral of random numbers and raw eggs leaping out at him. Max waits outside as P.J. emerges after the session. P. J.’s eyes are glazed over, and he cannot report on what happened in the examination room, as he says everything went blank. They both lapse into despair, certain that P.J. will fail after all. But Max calculates that the report card grades will not hit the mailboxes until 3:30 the following day, such that P.J. has less than 24 hours to make all his lifelong dreams into realities before his life comes to an end. Anything goes, since he will be functionally a dead man anyway once Dad sees the report card, so he can’t die twice. P.J. compiles a list of life aspirations, including, among others, seeing all 12 Mutulator movies, eating 200 Gorilla Burgers, and riding the three most lethal rides at the local amusement park. To get P.J. out of school next day, Max concocts a “facial” out of mud and a variety of kitchen vegetables (including stalks of broccoli growing out of the ears) to resemble two exotic illnesses out of a medical book at once. Pete over-reacts at the sight of his son in the morning, and calls for an ambulance, frantically reporting, “My kid’s down sick with the crud.” An unexpected trip to the surgery room results, with Max forced to pose as a surgeon to assist P.J. in an escape. Meanwhile, Pete wails at all the mean disciplines he’s put P.J. through over the years, and knows he must ask the boy’s forgiveness before the kid “falls apart”. Upon learning that P.J. has escaped from the operating room, Pete assumes that he’s going down like a fighter, intending to make the most of his last minutes of life, but still follows in pursuit, needing to obtain P.J.’s forgiveness or face a lifetime of guilt feelings. A mad chase follows in which Max tries to fulfill all of P.J’s wish list, including purchasing the requisite supply of Gorilla Burgers, loading all 12 Mutilator Movies into the VCR’s of a rental shop at once, and a whirlwind spree through the amusement park, on a harrowing roller coaster ride, the “Barrel of Fun” twirlabout ride, and a ride strapping P.J. inside the head of a giant hammer, which zips back and forth to strike metallic blows on two humongous anvils. Max gets P.J. home with seconds to spare before the report card arrives – containing an “A” in math! Instead of a grounding, Pete is overjoyed, despite the boys’ illness ruse, at P.J’s winning use of Pete’s brains to uphold the family name. He ushers P.J. out the door, to reward the dazed boy with a repeat performance of the same exhausting wish list all over again, except this time with “300 Gorilla Burgers”.
A few long-running series essentially escaped my attention, leaving me with the feeling I was not among their target audience. They would include “Arthur” (PBS/Cookie Jar Entertainment, 1996 to present), based on a series of children’s books about the school-age trials and tribulations of Arthur Aardvark (who never looked like he had the nose for eating ants) and his little sister and family. The show was definitely aimed at a younger age bracket, with gentle low-key humor at best, and sometimes struck me as the modern-day equivalent of “Davey and Goliath” without the religious fervor, more concerned about teaching life lessons than in providing engaging entertainment. “The Magic School Bus” (1994-1997), also seemed too educational and youth oriented for my tastes. Nickelodeon’s and subsequently Disney’s productions of the semi-autobiographical “Doug” (1991-1999), while definitely aimed at a more adolescent audience, also seemed to me to lack engaging character personalities or storylines of particular interest or comedy value, and never succeeded in drawing me in. Though I saw the openings of many an episode when it was sandwiched into the Disney schedule, I confess I have never had the patience to see any episode straight through, and always switched the channel, or the “off” switch. Any counter-viewpoints in defense of the production from those who actually sat through it are welcomed.
The Spooktacular New Adventures of Casper (Harvey/Universal, 1996-98), based upon the Steven Spielberg feature revival of the character, would on periodic occasion return Casper to the abandoned little red school house from “A Haunting We Will Go”, where he attends classes together with Spooky and Poil. Their teacher is one Miss Banshee – a reasonably strict disciplinarian, who you do not want to see in a bad mood – as her voice can easily live up to her name when aroused. The Ghostly Trio think of her as quite the hot item, and in more than one instance attempt to present themselves at their best in hopes of amorous courtship of the eligible spinster. That is, if their ectoplasmic eardrums can hold out whenever she breaks into her horrific shrieks. Somewhat past the time periods of review in this article series, Casper would again receive academic training in a direct-to-video feature and a follow-up series entitled “Casper’s Scare School” – however, I have seen none of this footage, and so reserve comment on same.
A dependable perennial, with some unusual takes upon the grade school experience, was Recess (1997-2001). Focusing on te adventures of T.J. Detweiler, prince of pranksters at his school, and his small posse of friends and co-pranksters, Detweiler wages a never-ending battle of wits against school authority, particularly in the form of teacher Muriel Finster, an old battle-axe with a naturally grouchy disposition, but who, despite such demeanor, has a few likeable qualities buried deep within her, if you can find them under those layers and layers of crust. And Principal Prickley, an easily frustrated no-nonsense type who views Detweiler as one step above a juvenile delinquent. Detweiler’s crew, among others, includes tomboy Spinelli, a freckle-faced girl who dresses like a boy and would rather use fists than brains to solve problems, Gretchen Grundler, a girl homely as a mud fence and who always wears glasses and braces adding to the disruption of her appearance, but who is the junior genius of their operations and always involved in calculating the details of their master plans, and Mikey Blumberg, a heavyweight kid with a gentle, peace-loving heart, and a unique singing voice totally unlike his speaking one, provided by Robert Goulet. Additional denizens include “King” Bob, an eighth grader who reigns over the playground on a throne based on the monkey bars, and the ultimate judicial authority of any dispute among the students, Randall Weems, the notorious class snitch and Finster’s right-hand man and spy, “The Ashleys”, a clique of Valley girls from rich families who all share the same name, so are only distinguished as “Ashley 1″, “Ashley 2″, and so on, and the Kindergarteners, a group of tots so untamed and wild, they are constantly depicted as a tribe of native savages. Opening theme music and story presentation often attempt to homage the undercover operations of “Hogan’s Heroes”, and all forms of student activity seem to be fair game for plots at one point or another, including the “dodge ball wall”, which is frequently used a vehicle for interrogation of suspect characters. The writing was chock full of clever situations and snappy dialog – so much so that the voice tracks appear to have undergone extremely tight editing to the point of lines almost overlapping one another in order to fit all the material in in the allotted 22 minutes. After its run, the show continued to spawn several made for TV feature-length adaptations, which continued to display the same quality and charm. Overall, a fine and unique effort in the Disney catalog.
I never had much opportunity to catch Disney’s Pepper Ann (1997-2000), and so will reserve judgment on the series for lack of reasonable comprehensive knowledge. However, from what little I’ve seen, it did appear that, despite possible similarities in style or storylines to “Doug”, “Ann” seemed to be a more lively and personable character, energetic and with a winning personality, and so my first instincts were that it may have been a more entertaining show. However, it had only about half the longevity of the former series, so possibly, the writers ran out of steam at some point.
Flying Rhino Junior High (1999 – 2000), a Canadian/French co-production), strikes me as a total waste of space. Its very theme song makes no attempt to rationally explain its existence, pointing out an aviator rhinoceros is the principal of an otherwise mostly-human school, and nobofy seems to know why. This is almost as bad as the non-apologetic, “Mother had a chicken, Mother had a cow…” theme song of Cartoon Network’s “Cow and Chicken”, too eager to point out that no one is taking the time to think things through. We are further supposed to believe that “anything is possible” at this high school, because some disgruntled former student resides in the sub-sub basement as a “phantom”, with a machine of his own invention that can make anything he thinks of a reality. If he has this kind of genius and technology, why is he wasting it to wreak havoc upon the school for revenge, when he could be out with Pinky and the Brain trying to take over the world? The whole thing is a lame excuse for entirely random material by the writers, with self-awareness that it all makes no sense. What’s more, it isn’t even clever nonsense, and to me failed miserably in achieving any level of humor. To make everything even harder to swallow, the show attempts to be educational in entirely unsubtle manner, breaking into every episode with what amounts to an actual lesson losing any resemblance to passing for an entertainment. If anyone was watching, were these interludes reserved as the time the audience disappeared into the kitchen for a snack? Kids aren’t fools, and presenting educational content in such outright fashion would be bound to meet mental resistance. Don’t waste your time looking it up. Ir’s better left forgotten.
In the late stages of Disney television animation, just past the heyday of the “Disney Afternoon”, Disney would utilize a school setting to provide “prequel” storylines to adapt two of its feature projects to the small screen. Both Hercules (1998-99) and The Emperor’s New School (2006-2008) would place their title character back a step, into the days of their schooling to become what they became. “Hercules” was by far the more successful venture, giving good opportunity for new action for returning villains Hades, Pain and Panic, and Herc’s satyr coach Phil. New characters included fellow students Cassandra, a dour, pessimistic young female who is possessed of the occasional power of foreseeing the future – outlook usually guaranteed to be overflowing with trouble. Also, Icarus, the legendary guy who fashioned wings of wax to reach the sun, is among Herc’s self-appointed best friends. He bears the battle scars of a warped, singed hairdo and one eye slightly out of kilter from his legendary crash when his wings melted. Nevertheless, he considers himself quite the genius and inventive spirit, though his record for success is checkered to say the least. A notable recurring villain includes Mechaniclees, an even more inventive genius who prefers the principles of early scientific thinking to construct contraptions of criminal aid or weapons of mass destruction, over relying upon super strength or other god-like powers. And speaking of Gods, nearly every big name in Greek mythology gets exploited in the series’ storylines – not to mention an interesting departure where Herc and Phil get lost at sea and wind up meeting the Gods and Vikings of Norway – a whole new cast of deities, with the exception of the Fates, who turn up working for the Norse Gods as well. Phil is morally outraged, and accuses the Fates of the unethical practice of “double-dipping into two mythologies”! As for “The Emperor” series, I did not find much about it of particular memorability. This may possibly have been because the original feature, being a considerably off-the-wall lunatic departure in its storytelling style, was a tough act to follow. Some montage styling of narrative imaginings used in the feature never translated as comically to the small screen when employed in the series. To its note, however, were a few rare instances where Eartha Kitt, as Yzma, was permitted to sing – something she was oddly not given the opportunity to do in the original feature, despite her long and successful recording career before embarking on her acting credentials. She still had the style, and it was a pleasure to hear her clear out her pipes once again.
One of Disney’s stranger Saturday Morning efforts was Teacher’s Pet (2000-2002), the continuing “tails” of a talking dog, who wants so much to be a part of the human world, that he swipes articles of clothing from his young master and masquerades as a little boy to attend classes with him. The boy is quite irked with the idea, and even exhibits frequent jealousy when the dog proves to be a better student than he is, but at least has the decency not to give the dog’s masquerade away. I might have done better with this show if I had listened to the soundtracks without watching the visuals – but I was frankly never able to get past the eccentric drawing style, where all human faces looked more like animated clown masks. Still, it tried for sparks of dialog comedy, and to some degree scored with a 2004 feature length adaptation, which I actually did manage to view from end to end, involving an attempt to achieve the dog’s ultimate dream through weird science – to become “a real boy” (with one memorable moment where the dig’s face transforms into the image of Pinocchio). Little more to say – if anyone has favorite highlights, feel free to chime in.
A few brief mentions are called for of some series outside the normal chronological scope of articles of this column. Two different series tried their approach at nearly the same idea within about a year of one another. Both “Totally Spies!” (Marathon Media/Image Entertainment, 2001-2005) and “Kim Possible” (Disney, 2002-2007) worked off the premise of balancing an everyday high school life with the hidden second agenda of being an international agent regularly assigned to save the world. The results of the efforts differed considerably, “Spies” presents its characters in traditional “Valley girl” stereotypes, even though the school they attend is in Beverly Hills.
Kim Possible is played without ethnicity or character traits specific to any location. Each show has its personnel to assign the mission of the half-hour. “Spies” uses a secret network of agents, with an underground headquarters below the school accessible by secret trap doors installed around the school, and is headed by an adult agent who sounds like he’s from British Intelligence. “Kim Possible” uses a go-between of Kim’s age, a computer nerd known as Wade, who never leaves the confines of his own room and home computer terminal (except in one case by means of a three-dimensional hologram), and who contacts Kim on her cell-phone. (Doesn’t anyone worry about a cell-phone signal getting hacked?) On the strength of glancing at only a handful of episodes, it appears the girls in “Spies” spend very little screen time on campus, preferring to be generally off on their missions.
Kim Possible takes a good deal more time in observing how Kim balances the pressures of her schooling with her secret life, including her mixed social and professional life with fellow agent/student Ron Stoppable and his pet naked mole rat Rufus who often assists in their missions. Kim is further frequently seen in confrontation with her female rivals in cheerleading and athletics, and in dealing with her strict instructor (voiced by Patrick Worburton), all without blowing her cover. Animation styles also vary notably, “Spies” using an odd approach to facial animation, with characters otherwise traditional in appearance periodically developing anime-style poses with oversized mouths and eyes and chins that disappear. “Kim”, on the other hand, uses a flattened perspective of stylization and unusual lower-lip structure, in some respects reminding one of the unique imagery of earlier Disney 1950’s efforts such s “Tot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom.” And of course Disney, old pros at the game, provide more consistent humor and overall breadth of supporting characters and plot variety, such that “Kim” generally takes the lead over “Spies”, despite both shows’ production values being quite acceptable. One can only wonder how many followers of one show also were followers of the other.
Nickelodeon would provide three late entries which we’ve highlighted in prior articles, often dealing with school subjects. Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius (2001-2006), a CGI series, involved the adventures of a young egghead in the town of Retroville, and his constant class rivalry with equally smart and highly competitive Cindy Vortex, in a classroom presided over by a teacher (Winfred Fowl) who sounds and facially resembles a clucking hen. “The Fairly Odd Parents” (1998-2017), a series about a boy and his two fairy godparents secretly residing incognito as goldfish in a bowl in his room, features the recurring character of Crocker, a teacher (using the same voice as the Simpsons’ Mr. Burns) who delights in plastering his students’ test papers and report cards with “F”s, and who also has a fixation upon hunting down and capturing fairies. Spongebob Squarepants (1999 – present) also continues to feature the recurring misadventures of Spongebob at Mrs. Puff’s boating school, where he holds the record (and still counting) for largest number of recurring failures of the course, but never stops re-enrolling. The only rule of thumb he seems to have absorbed out of all his years of training is the all-purpose reflex to “Floor it!”
Disney’s Fillmore (2002-2004) provides one of the most unusual approaches to a school series. Cornelius Fillmore and co-officer Ingrid Third, agents of a Safety Patrol squad at a middle school, conduct investigation of the latest disturbance or irregularity on campus (such as, in the premier episode, a restroom graffiti tagger) with all the techniques and drama of a police procedural. Music is maintained at a dramatic and moody level throughout, and the professional working relationship between the partner agents is reminiscent of investigations in “The X Files”. Humor is woven into the plotlines with subtlety, usually deriving from the absurdity of the situation being efficiently investigated – but the characters never drive a punch line home or beat a joke to death, and continue to act throughout like they are doing their jobs in professional and serious earnest. I believe the only problem with the setup is that it is played so straight, one comes away from the half hour feeling more like you have actually watched a police drama than as if you have merely seen a clever satire of one. One is almost tempted to watch the show with as straight a face as its participants – and left with the sense that the show would be fully satisfying, even on that level.
Final honorable mention goes to Cartoon Network’s Whatever Happened to Robot Jones? (2002-2003), a strange and rudimentary-stylized series about a robot attempting to update his data input by enrolling as a student in a human high school. While I haven’t taken the time to actually go back to any particular episodes for review, I have generally favorable memories of the series as reasonable funny and entertaining, in its own quirky way.
Pencils down. Exam books closed. Those of you who have reached this stage may consider yourself as achieving a passing grade. Those who have contributed something extra may add a gold star to their report cards. Class dismissed!