It’s been a long time since I buckled my seatbelt and hunkered down for a trip through outer space. Or through some kid’s digestive tract. Or, in this case, a wild adventure to the Galapagos Islands, complete with invasive species and symbiotic ecosystems.
That’s right, 1990s babies, the magic school bus is back, or should I say “The Magic School Bus Rides Again,” which arrived on Netflix Sept. 29. Although geared toward younger audiences, this revival has the advantage of calling upon the fond memories of college-age people like myself who will never forget the thrills of delight and anticipation when a boxy TV was rolled into the classroom. Nine times out of 10, this meant Ms. Frizzle and her magic school bus were about to rescue us from the tortures of everyday elementary school learning.
The first episode of “The Magic School Bus Rides Again” picks up where it left off at the end of 1997, as if 20 years have not elapsed. One of the most notable differences is the modern-day animation. Gone are the grainy (albeit well-loved) cartoons, and in their place are crystal clear, vibrant images. We’re also missing one of our students, Phoebe, who we are informed decided to go back to her old school (is she insane?!) In her place is Jyoti, a tech-savvy girl ready to take on the craziness of Ms. Frizzle’s classroom — and field trips. “The Magic School Bus” has always given voice to a culturally diverse and gender-balanced group of kids in the STEM world, and I am happy to say the revival is carrying on the same commitment.
But let’s talk about the biggest change of all: Ms. Frizzle is now Professor or Dr. Frizzle, PhD (but still voiced by Lily Tomlin, thank goodness). However, she is no longer the star of our show, as the world of higher education has called her away to conduct what is sure to be life-altering scientific research. Filling in her shoes is her younger sister, Fiona Frizzle (Kate McKinnon). Armed with the keys to the magic school bus and a familiar enthusiasm for all things science, the new Ms. Frizzle makes a memorable debut.
But does Fiona live up to her legendary older sister? Yes and no.
Of course, I have a few personal hang-ups. First, I have always associated Ms. Frizzle’s name with her frizzy hair, but the same association cannot be made with Fiona, who has glorious locks of only slightly wavy hair. But hey, at least it’s red. Second is the fact that there are no glowing earrings. Besides the whole magic school bus thing, nothing was more magical than Ms. Frizzle’s light-up earrings. And let’s not forget the new Ms. Frizzle’s clothes. They’re not the wacky, science-themed, Comic Con-jealousy-inducing outfits Professor Frizzle was famous for. Oh, and the crazy head gear is missing as well.
But Ms. Frizzle’s love of science and sense of adventure is just as strong as her sister’s, which — I must admit — is probably more important than her physical appearance. She’s not afraid to shrink the kids down to the size of ants or time travel into the future in the name of scientific discovery. Ms. Frizzle is also learning her way around the magic school bus, which has undergone some upgrades since 1997 making it look sleeker and move faster. But Ms. Frizzle’s stamp of approval really comes from her love of her students. She’s understanding (especially with Arnold, who literally freaks out the entire episode because he hates change) as her students adjust to a new teacher, and her enthusiasm is not just for science, but for her students’ learning about it.
Overall, I’m grateful that “Magic School Bus Rides Again” doesn’t mess too much with a good thing. It sticks with teaching broad scientific notions in a fun, imaginative way as the magic school bus whisks kids away to their next scientific discoveries. Oh, and one more vitally important thing: Lin-Manuel Miranda sings the theme song. And if anyone knows me, they know I’m a die-hard, possibly obsessed fan of the all things Lin-Manuel Miranda. So good job with that one, Netflix. Fangirling aside, I would say Netflix hit the jackpot by mixing modern-day cartoons with a hefty dose of nostalgia. Kids today and those, like myself, who were avid watchers in the 1990s and early 2000s, will gladly buckle up for “The Magic School Bus Rides Again.”