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Ah, the Magic School Bus; one of the greatest cartoon’s of my childhood. For those of you who are either too young or too old to have grew up with this show, I’ll give you the run down. The premise of the series is that a teacher, named Ms. Frizzle, uses a magical school bus to take her class on adventures and learn about science and the world around them (So, she uses magic to teach about science? Is that an oxymoron?). She shrinks them down to see germs and molecules, turns them into animals to study ecosystems, and has even rocketed them into deep space and had them eaten by a classmate to learn about the human digestive system.
Sounds totally safe, right?
The series was originally a book series, with each entry dealing with a different facet of science. These books were eventually adapted into an animated television show, which is what we are discussing today (the book series also has a great entry on dinosaurs, which I would like to review one day if I can get a cheap copy of it).
So, with this unlimited god like power at her disposal, it was inevitable that she would eventually break the laws of space time (the very laws of science she probably has taught at some point) to meet the dinosaurs face to face. But this episode does more than introduce the children to different kinds of dinosaurs or time periods. You see, this show came out when Jurassic Park was still a thing, and the image that all dinosaurs were bloodthirsty monsters was pretty evident. But this episode sets out to prove that not all dinosaurs were carnivorous killers, but that most were plant eaters. I’ll admit, that’s a fairly noble goal to teach, as it is true that most dinosaurs were in fact herbivores. But unfortunately, the episode kind of fails at this premise, but perhaps not in the way you’d think. I’ll show you how.
The episode begins at a normal field trip. Well, actually it’s not a normal field trip, it’s a trip to a massive dinosaur dig. But after you’ve gone to Pluto, been turned into a reptile, and explored the lungs of your own teacher, a dig site is relatively dull. But this is definitely no ordinary dig site, for the paleontologists have uncovered a complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton!
Sue, eat your heart out!
This skeleton garners the attention of Carlos, the class clown/attention hog and master of all things puns.
Look at that smug face, I just want to slap him!
Carlos retorts that all dinosaurs were bloodthirsty killers, out to fight anything that got in their way. Some of the class isn’t so sure that this image is right, so what does Ms. Frizzle do? Why, the only logical thing to do, of course. Travel back in time!
Alright class, it’s time once again to put you all in terrible danger for the sake of an elementary education!
She takes the class 67 million years in the past (usually shows like this go for the even 65 million years, the very end of the Cretaceous, but at least this way their still a couple million years away from ground zero). The students are understandably terrified, especially when they meet their first dinosaurs; a herd of Alamosaurus.
I’m glad they identify these sauropods as Alamosaurs, as they were the only sauropod (that we know of) that was present at the end of the Cretaceous in North America. However, I don’t like the fact that they just look like generic brontosaurs. Alamosaurus, being a member of the titanosaur family, was probably a pretty weird looking sauropod, but I’ll let it slide because in the 90’s all we knew of Alamosaurus was that it was a sauropod, since all we had of it were neck vertebrae.
When the class see’s the sauropods, they begin to run in panic. A few of them climb up a tree, afraid that they might eat them (seriously, who out there actually doesn’t know that sauropods were plant eaters). Some of the class begins to connect the dots, and realizes the dinosaurs only want to eat the trees. However, Carlos insists that the animals are dangerous, which does raise some questions, but I’ll get to that later.
Meanwhile, Arnold, another classmate, realizes that the fossil egg he was carrying earlier in the episode has turned back into a real egg (which begs the question; why did the egg revert to it’s former state if it was in the bus/time machine with the kids yet they didn’t suffer any similar effects?). The egg, unfortunately, is stolen by an ornithomimus.
It’s funny seeing that naked lizardy look for ornithomimids after being so used to them covered in feathers, but I’ll let that slide here. It’s still surprising, however, to see the trope of Ornithomimus and kin being egg stealers. I can see why some thought this was plausible at one time, but it’s kind of hilarious now that it’s pretty certain that these creatures basically fed like modern day ostriches.
Still, at the time of the episode, it was very much disputed what ornithomimids ate, as they were theropods (who are traditionally carnivores) with no teeth. Even the episode doesn’t give us a straight answer besides eggs. Arnold asks fellow classmate Phoebe if she thinks it’s a meat eater, and she say’s maybe it only eats eggs. The episode labels it purely carnivore, but this was probably unlikely.
Anyway, the class notices that Arnold and Phoebe are missing, and go to search for them. In doing so, they run into a group of Parasaurolophus in the water.
Now, this raises a few points.
First off, Parasaurolophus didn’t live 67 million years ago, as it went extinct about 70 million years ago (that’s of course if Charonosaurus doesn’t turn out to be just a species of Parasaurolophus, which did exist at the very end of the Cretaceous, but only in Asia).
Second, Carlos continues to insist that these creatures are carnivorous, and that they probably ate Arnold and Phoebe. The other classmates tell him they’re just minding their own business. Carlos sees the Parasaurolophus’ drinking, and claims that they’re washing down Carlos and Phoebe with water. But as is not, for they finally spot them in the distance, still chasing after that Ornithomimus. Carlos says it looks a bit small to be a dinosaur, but Ms. Frizzle tells him that dinosaurs came in all shapes and sizes.
Even weird, plucked ostrich lizardy shapes.
Ahh, that’s better.
The class wants to get to Arnold and Phoebe, but the Parasaurolophus are in the way. That’s when they notice their crest, which Ms. Frizzle says they use for communication, but Carlos at first says they’re for stabbing innocent victims.
Not the weirdest theory I’ve seen.
The class get’s the bright idea to try and communicate with the dinosaurs, and Ms. Frizzle has just such a device that can do so (because of course she does).
She blows a horn that emits a Parasaurolophus cry (which is actually just a stock dolphin cry) and it works. The Parasaurolophus get out of the way, but accidentally knock the bus far off, and the children into a nest of Maiasaura.
Of course, we know that Maiasaura didn’t live 67 million years ago, but instead over 80 million years ago. However, they needed a dinosaur to demonstrate that dinosaurs weren’t all vicious and were even good mothers, and what better dinosaur to use than the one who’s name even means ‘good mother lizard’ (you know, despite the fact that most if not all dinosaurs took care of their young and Maiasaura really isn’t that special). Still, Carlos in insistent that all dinosaurs were killers.
They eventually find the bus, and see that it is surrounded by a herd of Triceratops. Carlos still thinks that they are dangerous, but Dorthy Ann, another classmate, responds that the Triceratops won’t hurt them for they are plant eaters. And they just stroll into the herd with little baby Triceratops in it and the adults remain calm and docile.
OK, this is where I make my statement.
I get what this episode is trying to teach; not all dinosaurs were carnivores, and most of them where in fact plant eaters, but they’re forgetting one little issue. Just because an animal eats plants doesn’t mean it’s docile. It’s like walking through the African savanna and saying ‘the rhinoceros won’t hurt us, for they are plant eaters’ or ‘the hippopotamus won’t hurt us, because they only eat plants’. These dinosaurs are still wild, powerful animals that would protect themselves if they feel threatened, especially with their young around. I understand the trope ‘plant eater good, meat eater bad’ in fiction because those stories are usually told from a herbivore’s perspective. But when an educational program tries to teach that dinosaurs weren’t all dangerous because most ate plants, it makes me want to put them in a pen with an angry bull and see how docile that herbivore is (I’m kidding of course, I’m not a sociopath).
However, the Triceratops do begin to act aggressively when a pack of Troodon try to capture a baby.
The Troodon (shown featherless, of course) run scared when the adults intervene (and they hide the babies in that hypothetical defense circle you keep on seeing in paleo art that is actually something modern day musk oxen do but is thought to be fact for ceratopsians to some because they see a bunch of artwork ripping each other off by presenting one person’s theory as probable fact).
You know what I’m talking about.
The Troodon then put their attention on the classmates (even though a Troodon would pose about as much a threat as a modern day jackal would). In order to scare away the predators, Ms. Frizzle gives the classmates a little invention of hers; shields that look like a Triceratops’ head creatively called Tricera-Shields. The ploy works, and the Troodons run off.
This is when the episode tries to teach it’s second lesson; even though there were still many carnivorous dinosaurs, it didn’t mean they were bloodthirsty fighters, but instead animals looking for an easy meal and not wanting to get hurt. Now, this I understand a lot more then ‘herbivores are friendly’. Animals today don’t go around fighting each other like you see dinosaurs do in Hollywood movies. I’m mean, yeah, that image is irresistible…
…but sadly, not plausible.
Anyway, Arnold and Phoebe finally get back the egg, only to run into a Tyrannosaurus rex.
Naturally, they run the heck out of there, and find there way back to the bus. The rest of the class is astonished to see a real live T. rex, but Ms. Frizzle remains calm as she always does, and explains that Tyrannosaurus was (or in this case, is) the biggest carnivore ever to walk the earth.
Back off Giganotosaurus, you’re bigger by what, three feet?
And you have no room to talk either, shorty.
Phoebe makes it to the bus, but Arnold slips in some mud and falls to the ground. I love how after that, he nonchalantly says to himself “well, I’m dead meat now” in the most casual way possible. One thing that still really holds up in this series is the humor, despite it getting corny some of the time.
Arnold hides under the bus, and the Rex starts attacking it Jurassic Park style.
You know, the class has gone through quite a few terrifying experiences, but I have to admit, I think this is the most horrified I’ve ever seen them.
Let’s go see dinosaurs, she said. It’ll be fun, she said.
Ms. Frizzle, of course, remains as unfazed as ever. She casually goes over her insurance policy to see if it covers dinosaur damage, and then ponders that this would be the perfect opportunity to study the digestive system of a Tyrannosaurus…and I think Ms. Frizzle is a tad bit bonkers.
Meanwhile, Arnold showing the most bravery he has shown in the entire series (he’s normally a nervous mess) actually stands up to the T. Rex.
Wow, when did Arnold suddenly get nerves of steel?
In any normal case, this would get the kid bitten in half, but with Ms. Frizzle, it’s never a normal case. So, what does she do? Why, make Arnold grow 20 feet tall so that he is the same size of the T. rex.
And guess what happens next? Arnold does a bunch of fake fighting moves, and actually scares off the Tyrannosaurus.
Dude, this actually worked!
So, the point they were trying to make here is that the Tyrannosaurus would much rather find an easy meal then fight something it’s size because it doesn’t want to get hurt, and that’s an admirable thing to teach. But the way they went about doing it is a bit perplexing. First off, you turned a kid who’s at best 10 years old 20 feet tall. I think a Tyrannosaurus would be able to sense that he would have the upper hand in this fight. You’re not going to scare off a predator by doing fake kung fu moves and silly Bruce Lee noises. I know he’s the same size, but it’s still like facing down a lion or tiger. It’s still stronger, and would probably sense that. Arnold shouldn’t have gotten out of this unscathed, in reality he would probably leave missing an arm at best.
But of course, the plan works.
The episode ends with Arnold saving the day, the class returning to their own time, and finding a giant tennis show print in the rock.
And that’s why you shouldn’t mess with the past.
So, this episode did try to do something new in teaching it’s audience about dinosaurs. It did more than teach us about different dinosaur species and time periods (because really, what dinosaur special from the 80’s and 90’s didn’t already do that, not to mention this was during the Jurassic Park craze and kids already knew their dinosaurs). It tried to dispel some of the myths and stereotypes associated with dinosaurs; the idea that they were all bloodthirsty monsters. But in doing so, they accidentally portrayed them as too friendly or too cowardly, and we can just look at modern day animals and know that wasn’t the case. Dinosaurs weren’t monsters, but they weren’t defenseless either. The dinosaurs themselves are mostly accurate circa 1995, despite a few instances of misplaced wildlife, so I’ll give this episode a score of…
7.5 out of 10. It tried, and for the most part succeeded, but may have overreached it’s boundaries.
Join me next time as I do a mini review of everybody’s favorite modern stone age family….
Get ready for some rock puns.