Schoolhouse Rock, People!
By: Hugh Sloan
Schoolhouse Rock excelled in many ways across four decades, growing in themed chunks between 1973 and 2009. I recently watched every minute of these uniquely grassroots yet solidly corporate interstitials. Many episodes are terribly broken, but I do not see any negative intent. Many others impress me on several levels. Now I offer my opinions and a spotlight on eight segments I think are fully operational today and have a place in any future classroom, space academy, or crystalline zoo. I hope you enjoy them, especially if you somehow missed out on SHR before now. You can learn about the franchise’s unique origins and production history from Wikipedia. Please comment on any aspect that raises an eyebrow, impresses you artistically, or makes you happy!
In this warm and engaging 1979 explanation of the separation of powers in the United States Federal Government, Lynn Ahrens sings her own lyrics to music she composed. Charming animation brings her dulcet and unapologetically complex vocabulary lesson to life. We may see a female justice on the Supreme Court in this segment, which aired two years before the historic confirmation of Sandra Day O’Connor. Positivity like that pervades Schoolhouse Rock, despite many missed opportunities, mostly elsewhere, to proactively show natural and proper diversity.
When I first got to this episode in my review, I noted that the presentation of the president as “ring number one” might reflect an undue focus on the executive. Congress, not the executive, runs under Article I of our constitution, in what some might consider coveted above-the-fold inches right below the preamble. Article II establishes and instructs the executive branch, and Article III creates the Supreme Court and allows Congress to spin up lower courts as they see fit. In fact, the clauses are co-equal, but people say first impressions matter, and Schoolhouse Rock is a series of custom-crafted first impressions. If nothing else, the lack of parallelism could confuse students on a Schoolhouse Quiz. I have decided that Congress doesn’t miss out on their share of attention and informative metaphor, though. Maybe starting with the presidency gives viewers a more focused individual goal.
I wish the justices looked more… let’s say “into it,” but I’m satisfied to chalk up their dour faces to trapeze unease.
Where the Money Goes
Specific and immediately practical waste-cutting measures in this awesome father-son conversation stand among the greatest knowledge deliveries in all of Schoolhouse Rock. This 1995 segment about managing expenses teaches more and establishes greater emotional connection than the related but less thoughtful short about budgeting, “$7.50 once a week,” which debuted three months later. Exquisitely animated moments include the crushing of bills to form the desired ticket and the animation, for goodness’ sake, of upholstery work and the inside of a sofa. World-class vocals harness the best of both dialed-in jaunt and eye-opening free-form. The sound of the sousaphone clanging against the bus door impossibly predicts all our efforts years later to make use of a deactivated turret, or anything else at all, in Portal.
I’m Just a Bill
Did anyone learn the basics of the legislative process from someone other than this long-suffering Bill? …Oh, yes! Probably so! Nonetheless, many people did learn about committees and vetoes and overruling from this Bill… or should I say, this Law? (Oh, yes!)
I feel as happy about the creativity and choices that channeled the patriotic energy of the U.S. bicentennial in 1976 into such productive civics education as I do about the delightful mannerisms of our soulful statute friend, like wiggling of papery little feet and the worried demonstration of what it must be like to “die in committee.” Here’s the Deluxx Folk Implosion cover for Schoolhouse Rock Rocks!:
The discussions in that version may or may not take place between curious Peridot and Lapis Lazuli. If that is a hot take, I stand by it.
Sufferin’ ‘til Suffrage
Visually jarring is not always bad. This powerful anthem drives home the injustice of rights denied and provides powerful inspiration to all citizens to exercise and protect their rights while remembering those who fought for them. The singer representing individuals, then walking among them, then joining with them as they emerge from black-and-white photographs into colorful animation… just rocks. Imagery is as creative and committed as in any episode, with rows and rows of strong protagonists crossing the country from the voting booths to affect changes at all levels of government. A voter’s picture is worth a thousand vocab words.
A Noun is a Person, Place, or Thing
Except for relegating animals to the status of “thing,” this colorful and systematic lesson truly brightens three minutes. That brightness delivers dozens of examples across repeated explanations of the part of speech. Like other great SHR programming, the art would be excellent even without its huge educational cargo. The 30th Anniversary DVD’s creators’ commentary for this episode noted the snow on the sun as a classic quirk.
The level of trust and innocent fun when the host arrives and jumps off the ferry at the Statue of Liberty typifies the optimistic worldview of the Schoolhouse Rock universe. This portrayal of a young host who knows what they want to do to have fun should not be noteworthy, but I suspect that a vignette showing any young person in 1973 that they could “take the lead” and go put a dime in a jukebox and dance whenever they damn well pleased was not the only narrative that young person was getting. I think Stevonnie could totally rave to this.
Verb: That’s What’s Happening
Prepare for three minutes of endless creativity and transformations. Competition for best dream sequence involving flying has gotten very, very tough in recent years, though some are just cheesy. But dreaming in a theater about being in the movie, especially due to exhaustion from imaginary fence building, painting, swimming, and flying, all to escape the fruits of more imagination… that might push this 1973 marvel over the top.
The Tale of Mr. Morton
… and let’s bring Pearl!
Tom Yohe Jr., the son of original animator Tom Yohe Sr., animated in 1993 this improbably thrilling story about predicates of sentences. As he notes in a DVD feature, he draws just like his father. An enlightened story combines with thoughtful balance between realism and whimsy to nurture a mood that warms the heart. Specifically, cat notes and a seamless flower-growth time-skip perfectly balance with Mr. Morton’s day-to-day routines and human insecurities.
An intrepid and inspired editor re-cut the animation to the Skee-Lo cover of the song from the album Schoolhouse Rock Rocks!
The Little Things We Do
Who doesn’t love an elegant callback? The unit of 2009’s Earth Rock creations that seems socially and technically flawless to me – several are very good – shows life after sunset for Mr. Morton, Pearl, Orton, and a new addition, Norton. Early on, the TV news reader’s non-musical verse suddenly locks in massive and immersive realism for an animated short of this style, yet their general flow with the musical progress does not throw off a viewer’s groove. Every frame demonstrates useful and important conservation practices that viewers of all ages can start immediately. I respect the delightful means of this driven homage as well as the crucial ends.
I enjoyed this nostalgia trip a lot. I remember feeling concern about some scenes when I was in grade school, but I’m surprised at the obvious flaming social craters in a few Schoolhouse Rock bits. I think everyone’s hearts were in the right place in all cases, but Schoolhouse Rock has problems. Columbus and Pizarro trading beads to Native Americans for literally-anything-but-beads seems fun and okay, for example. Our barter-trade-era “Neanderthal manners” of dragging about half of us around by the hair gets a setup for a solid finger wag and a chuckle. We should not dismiss or justify these lighthearted depictions of dark hearts, but we can choose to forgive them. Everyone makes mistakes, sometimes even innocent ones, and I argue that we can learn from Schoolhouse Rock’s imperfections and continue enjoying the 30 minutes or more of Schoolhouse Gems they produced.
Artistically, I think Schoolhouse Rock’s style works. The advertising-house origins of the program contributed to its brutal effectiveness in the classroom, and I give huge slack for the animation “quality” in the parts of the series that didn’t make this list.
Except for “Elbow Room.” They phoned that one all the way in.