As anyone who went to school in the 90s might know, there were 2 reasons to look forward to science class: Bill Nye The Science Guy and The Magic School Bus. As hokey as a lot of the edutainment we watched in school was, Bill Nye and Magic School Bus were the perfect blend of funny, educational, and entertaining. I remember the whole class would always be excited when we walked into science class and saw the teacher had signed out the TV and VCR for the period. I think that both shows are great and still hold up today, but I only have the holiday episode for one of them in my collection, and that’s the Magic School Bus Holiday Special. It’s got recycling, The Nutcracker, and a celebrity guest voice, but before I can get into it, I’ll give you the rundown for The Magic School Bus.
The show is quite simple to explain. A creative, zany teacher named Miss Frizzle has a class of 8 kids whom she takes on awesome field trips almost every day. Miss Frizzle has a Magic School Bus, hence the show’s name, that can transform itself into other vehicles, shrink itself, or even turn into a planet! She takes them on these field trips to teach them lessons about science, ranging from physics to biology to astronomy, and while taking a few liberties here and there (Which they do address at the end of each episode), the science is fairly accurate. Most people my age learned their science basics from this show, and still remember a lot of the lessons to this day. Having said all of that, I’ll now tell you about the special.
The special starts with a stage production of The Nutcracker that is just wrapping up. We see one of Miss Frizzle’s students, Wanda, in the audience, and just as she is clapping and cheering, she is snapped back to reality. She was day dreaming while the class is sorting recyclables for a trip to the local recycling plant. The other students ask her what she was thinking about, and she tells them all about how excited she is to be going to see The Nutcracker that night. It’s her family’s yearly tradition, and she really loves it. She has even brought her toy soldier, which she has had since she was a young child, with her to school so she can go straight from there to the play.
The class is almost done sorting, but they are waiting on Arnold before they can go. He comes in and apologizes for being late, but tells everyone he was spending Hanukkah time with his mom because he won’t be home that night for the first night of Hanukkah. They sympathize, and he starts to help them all pack up the recyclables to the bus for the trip, when he drops a cool cross section mineral rock from his pocket. He tells Wanda that his mom gave it to him as an early Hanukkah gift. They are just about to leave when he sees Wanda’s soldier on the floor, and thinking it was meant to be recycled, tosses it into one of the blue boxes.
The children sing a song in the bus on their way to the recycling plant, and before they know it they have arrived at a large recycling facility. Everyone carries some of the recycling inside, and it is here that we meet Miss Frizzle’s cousin “Murph”, voiced by Dolly Parton. She tells the kids where to sort the recycling by singing them a song about doing so, her first of many in the episode. Everything gets sorted and put in the right place, and then Wanda sees that he soldier has been mixed in with all of the other plastic. She tries to tell Murph that she needs to get it out of the bin, but it is too late. The plastic is all washed, melted, and cut into small plastic pellets! Arnold apologizes profusely and feels rotten about what has happened. In true It’s A Wonderful Life form, Wanda wishes there was no such thing as recycling, so that she could have her doll back. Luckily, it just so happens the Magic School Bus has a button for that, and everyone leaves the plant, boards the bus, and Miss Frizzle hits the recycling reversal button. It causes the recycling plant to turn into a pile of garbage, but this is just the first in a series of things to disappear because recycling is no more.
As the bus travels back to the school, all signs of recycling or recycled materials from blue boxes to playground equipment transform into garbage. Trees also start to disappear, what with no paper being recycled. By the time they make it back to the school, Wanda realizes how important is, but still want to go in to the class in hopes that her doll would be there. When they arrive at the school however, they can’t get in because the playground has been turned into a landfill!
Wanda realizes the error of her ways, and wants to undo all of the un-recycling they just did, but by the time she comes around to the idea, the bus itself has all but disappeared, what with it having been made of recycled materials. The class all band together though, and with the help of Murph and one of her songs, begin recycling old cans and bottles and scrap metal into a new School Bus. It isn’t too long at all before they have a newly recycled bus and are ready to re-do all of the recycling they undid. As they drive back to the recycling plant, we see things going back to how they were, and it all looks much better. By the time they get back to the pile of rubble that was the recycling plant, Wanda is happy that recycling exists, even if it cost her her favourite doll.
After changing the recycling plant back to normal, Wanda realizes if they can make a new bus, they can surely make a new doll. Everyone goes back in side, and with the help of Murph, eight new soldiers are made from the plastic pellets, one for each student. Wanda now invites everyone to come with her to The Nutcracker that night, and they all say yes except Arnold. It turns out the reason he isn’t spending time with his mom that night is because his grandma is sick, and his mom went ahead to go check up on her, while Arnold and his dad are catching the late train. Everyone feels bad for Arnold, especially Wanda after a present from Arnold falls out of her bag. It turns out that he has given her his rock mineral to make up the loss of her original doll, and has included a note telling her to enjoy The Nutcracker that night. Wanda is visibly touched by Arnold’s gift, and wishes there is something she could do for him.
We then cut to a shot of Arnold’s train that night, and he and his dad are settled in for their long journey. Just then, Arnold hears one of Murph’s songs coming for the back of the train, and heads back to check it out. He goes through a door to find that his whole class, along with Murph and Miss Frizzle, have attached the bus to the back of the train as a caboose and are all there to see him. He is shocked, because they are all supposed to be at The Nutcracker, but Wanda tells him that some things are more important than going to the ballet. She even has a present for Arnold, a bag of plastic pellets, which Arnold seems oddly pleased with. Then everyone joins in on one of Murph’s songs, and just before the special ends, the characters wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a Happy Kwanza.
This special is a little hard to categorize, because it skates back and forth between a few of the usual holiday special tropes. The episode conveys two messages in the end, one Christmas oriented, and the other recycling oriented. Wanda realizes, ala George Bailey, that wishing something out of existence can have dangerous side effects, and may actually make for a worse world, a non Christmas message conveyed using Christmas Special clichés. She also realizes however, that sometimes being with a friend in need over the holidays is more important than doing something for yourself that you can always do again next year. Both are nice messages, and I’m glad The Magic School Bus was able to fit in an extra lesson at the end of an episode in the spirit of the holidays.
I like it when shows like this are able to do a holiday special, because even though the show was mainly made for edutainment purposes, the producers and writers knew that they could kill two birds with one stone by making a holiday episode. They were not only able to make an episode with a positive ecological message, they were able to use their soapbox and teach kids a great lesson in selflessness.
The episode’s only real downfalls are that like many other shows made in the 90s, they have included bad jokes that haven’t held up well over time. Also, as much as The Magic School Bus normally stretched reality to help prove a point, some of the things in this episode are downright silly and unbelievable, like Miss Frizzle having gigantic metal moulds to make a new school bus in her coat pocket. It was slightly lazy writing, but doesn’t negatively affect the show too much.
I would recommend this special to adults and kids alike. It’s a good special for the kids, as it teaches a couple of great lessons, and for anyone who grew up on The Magic School Bus, once you look past the dated jokes, you’ll realize the show still holds up pretty well. It’s also a nice special for all denominations, as it is not a Christmas Special, but a Holiday Special, and makes mention of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza as to not be exclusionary. Adults who didn’t grow up on The Magic School Bus might not love the episode, but there are enough fun songs and allusions to other holiday classics that most people should find something to like about it.