SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK (TV SHOW) – DVD review

Generation X’ers may recall the “Schoolhouse Rock” segments that aired on ABC during their Saturday morning programming from 1972-86. These catchy little animated songs taught a generation of children about math, grammar, science, U.S. history, and the American political system. Now the creators of those musical lessons have put together a dozen new songs related to saving the planet, and Disney has packaged them together with the original “Energy Blues” Schoolhouse Rock song just in time for Earth Day (April 22).

They’re done in a style similar to the original cartoons and songs, which raises an interesting question: will they work on a generation that’s been weaned on music videos, quick cuts, and high-powered graphics? I can’t answer that, except to report that my kids (ages seven and 11) didn’t run away when I played them. However, all 13 songs in a row can seem like a lot. They’re lessons, after all, and how many kids today are going to sit through 50 minutes of lessons? If Disney is truly interested in teaching, then I hope that they start to incorporate one of these lessons on every kids’ DVD they produce, so it kicks in with the previews on their “FastPlay” option. Snuck in one at a time, I think these little ditties can be effective. But as I said, when you watch them in a group, you feel like you’re getting hit over the head with the messages. The only convenience, I suppose, is that teachers can buy the disc and integrate a song or two at a time into their lesson plans on various aspects of conservation.

Here’s a rundown on the songs that are included. All are sung in a soft-pop style, with repetition to reinforce their messages:

Report from the North Pole features three polar bears on an ice floe that continues to shrink as they sing about global warming and the way that the reduction of their habitat has a domino effect that touches all of our lives. The lyrics are fine, but the tune itself has some discordant elements and it doesn’t have that catchy sing-along quality of the originals.

The Little Things We Do is catchier. It features Mr. Morton and his family as they learn about little things they can do to help the planet conserve energy, like turn off lights when they’re not being used, don’t leave video games on when you’re watching TV, car pool, get a tune-up, drive slower, use push lawn mowers, take shorter showers, and turn down the thermostat (which the Morton’s cat proudly does).

The Trash Can Band is also about what you can do to save the planet, with the focus on Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Singing about it are three containers who play instruments in a slightly rockabilly style with Dolly Carton (pictured here) taking center stage. Some of the points they drive home are buying in bulk to cut down on packaging that ends up in landfills, reusing plastic, using cloth bags at the supermarket, rejecting Styrofoam (yeah, good luck come Christmas toy time),

You Oughta Be Savin’ Water” features Dewey Drop and the Drips in a faux doo-wop ditty (“If you’re not conservin’ water, you oughta, you oughta”) and basically talks about those minute-less showers again.

The Rainforest is a nice change of pace because it teaches about the levels of the rainforest before it starts whacking you with another conservation message, and then it’s to draw the connection again between the animals’ loss of habitat and human consumption and the effect that the diminishment of carbon dioxide-consuming plants will have on the planet.

Save the Ocean offers a crustacean, fish, and squid singing about keeping the oceans clean. Here, though, the original creators show how out-of-step they are with today’s music by offering a weakly rapping walrus and sea turtle that just made the kids cringe–because it’s kind of like a red-haired, freckled kid who starts talking like he’s from the ‘hood.

FatCat Blue: The Clean Rivers Song zeroes in on the waste products that go down our sewer systems into the local rivers, and particularly single out factories as the biggest offenders.

A Tiny Urban Zoo is probably the best of the bunch because it gives kids an idea that’s fun: throw some wildflower seeds down in your back yard and start your own “zoo,” which will soon be populated by bugs, beetles, butterflies, and birds. The song is catchy, too.

The Energy Blues is the original save-the-planet song from the old Schoolhouse Rock series, and cleaned up it looks awfully good–so good that you’d swear it was redrawn for this DVD. This is the one that gives you a primer on how our energy search began with wood, progressed to coal, then oil, and what effect consumption has on the planet.

Solar Power to the People” dredges up an old Schoolhouse Rock character (Interplanet Janet) for a new song about the sun as a source of heat, lighting, and electricity.

Windy and the Windmills does the same for wind power.

Don’t Be a Carbon Sasquatch is a catchy song with fun graphics that teaches kids about “carbon footprints” but then circles back to reduce consumption themes from previous songs.

The Three Rs is a live-action music video starring Mitchel Musso (“Hannah Montana”) with a “Roger Rabbit”-style integration of cartoon elements. The three Rs, of course, are Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

About the only thing missing is a song about the dangers to the planet that nuclear power presents, and given that legislation is on the table to permit the construction of new plants, it’s surprising that there’s nothing that addresses the storage problems we’re facing already.

Video:
Surprisingly, these are presented in 1.66:1 widescreen, enhanced for 16×9 television monitors. Not surprisingly, for a Disney video, the picture quality is great: bright colors, clean and precise margins, just a modicum of grain/texture.

Audio:
Disney went full-bore on these, offering English or French Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks (apparently English and French speakers are the only ones who care about saving the planet, or need these lessons the most!). There are no subtitles. Then again, with song lyrics often popping up and words to reinforce the lessons fill the screens, where would subtitles go?

Extras:
There are no bonus features.

Bottom Line:
These 12 new Schoolhouse Rock songs are done in the same style as the originals by the creators of those old mini-musical lessons that began in the the 1970s. Does it play today? Well, I’m not the person to judge. Young people out there are going to have to answer that question, and for that to happen Disney is going to have to start running the songs on the Disney Channel and including them on all their kid-friendly DVDs.

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