The Magic School Bus Rides Again, Netflix’s pseudo-sequel of the 90s animated kid’s show, has returned for a second season, inviting viewers to once again take a ride on the titular Magic School Bus with Miss Frizzle and her never-aging students. Oftentimes, reboots and sequels will make radical changes in attempt to establish themselves as something separate from the source material. That’s not the case with Rides Again. Rather than completely revamp or update the original show’s format, the new Magic School Bus seems content with hitting the same beats as its beloved predecessor.
Given the success of the original Magic School Bus, this is not a bad strategy. It does, however, leave the show at risk of being a fine-but-forgettable retread of a familiar concept. Fortunately, Rides Again is a lot of fun, thanks to Kate McKinnon’s fantastic performance as Miss Frizzle – the younger sister of the original Miss Frizzle. The Saturday Night Live MVP is perfect as the wise and wacky teacher and brings an infectious energy that sets the perfect tone for the series.
The Magic School Bus is such an iconic property that it can be easy to forget just how strange the show’s premise really is. Each episode, Miss Frizzle takes her students on a field trip through time and space, giving them a hands-on education in that week’s topic. In the span of 30 minutes, these kids can go back millions of years, explore different planets, or spend some time touring the human digestive system (Those permission slips must be thousands of pages long) The success of the show is partly due to the fact that it never fully acknowledges how wild all of this is, instead opting for a “just-go-with-it” energy that invites the viewer to resist overthinking and enjoy the ride, all the while learning some cool science stuff.
Ride Again’s infectious energy comes almost entirely from McKinnon’s Frizzle, as she takes on the role of chaos master, without seeming sinister or untrustworthy. She is zany, yes, but she also is clearly in control at all times, and her casual confidence allows the students (and viewers) to believe that everything will be alright, no matter the predicament. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.
This is evident in the first episode of the new season, “The Land Before Tim,” which nonchalantly devolves into lunacy without missing a beat. To help the students gain confidence for an upcoming game show about fossils, Frizzle and the gang hop on the magic school bus and time-travel back in time to the Cretaceous period, where Miss Frizzle literally turns a few of the students into dinosaurs. Frizzle then takes the remaining students back into the future; the dino students become fossils that can talk, which lets them help their peers prepare for the show.
Out of context, this sounds like the premise for a pretty wicked body horror movie, but there’s no need to worry when Miss Frizzle is behind the wheel. Instead of freaking out, the kids are cracking one-liners and treating the whole situation like an average school day. Even Arnold, the so-called worry wart of the class, goes along on the adventures without worrying about the potential death that hangs over every adventure.
Since the key to the show’s success is Frizzle, Rides Again naturally suffers any time it steps away from the kooky educator and focuses on the kids, who lack the depth to carry their own storylines. None of the kids are obnoxious or unlikable; they’re just not nearly as compelling as their unpredictable teacher.
In “Claw and Order,” the second episode of the new season, the kids put on a courtroom drama when they discover that a mysterious creature has destroyed their classroom and stolen their pizza. It’s an episode that’s meant to shed light on our justice system and teach some cool facts about the evolution of birds as a species, but Frizzle’s reduced presence — she’s basically a chauffeur and tour guide — makes the whole episode fall flat.
Fortunately, The Magic School Bus Rides Again plays to its strength and keeps the focus primarily on Frizzle while making the kids mostly act as audience surrogates. McKinnon’s powerhouse performance helps make the show a fun new chapter that honors the original series, while not feeling like a lazy rehashing of a tried-and-true concept. With the wackiness turned up to 11, the new season feels like a logical next step in the storied series’ evolution.