TV That…Complicated…My Childhood: CBS Storybreak.

TV That...Complicated...My Childhood: CBS Storybreak.

CBS’s animated anthology series held wonders and terrors, and you never knew which you were going to get!

Our Puff the Magic Dragon retrospective jogged some childhood memories of other beloved animated specials. I looked up several other CBS cartoon features and was surprised to see most of my favorites were all part of the same anthology: CBS Storybreak. I did a little more digging and discovered that some of the cartoons that scarred my childhood ALSO came from that series. Let’s dig a little deeper.

CBS Storybreak (1985-1989)

Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo to you and me) hosts these half hour animated specials. They are all based upon contemporary children’s books, several of which were award winning. The show itself did the material proud, garnering an Emmy nomination for best animated program.

Over four seasons, 26 works were adapted into individual episodes. In 1993, CBS brought the program back for re-runs, but redid the live sections to feature the new host, Malcom-Jamal Warner.

Yes, of Cosby Show fame. Luckily he’s made his own fame and fortune apart from the Cos’ legacy.

The Good…

CBS Storybreak really excelled at variety. Modern takes on fairy-tales, young-adult science fiction, and Disney-esque animal comedies all mingled. With such a wide net, Storybreak often caught some real prize-winners.

TV That...Complicated...My Childhood: CBS Storybreak.
Don’t get attached to the carp, kids.

Episodes such as “Yen-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China” and “The Pig Plantagenet” felt like modern classics, and were in heavy rotation. Comedies like “How to Eat Fried Worms” and “Chocolate Fever” were genuinely funny. “Witch-Cat” felt like a solid pilot for a teen drama akin to Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Later entries were less notable, though “The Gammage Cup” did a solid job of approximating The Hobbit for a younger crowd.

For all that, my absolute favorite was “Dragon’s Blood”. This science fiction fantasy, based on the first of Jane Yolen’s excellent YA series, takes place on a desolate planet where the only life besides human-like settlers are dragons. Special humans can mind-meld with dragons, and our protagonist manages to meld with a runt dragon, despite his low social status. They go on to challenge the social order in a gorgeously animated, densely plotted story that felt more like a full movie than a half-hour special.

The series of books are excellent as well.

The Dark…

Several entries to the series hid more-adult themes under the surface, much like old Grimm’s fairy tales. I mean, Yen-Shen ends up cooking up her magical fairy carp-mother, so there’s that…

“What Happened in Hamelin” retells the Pied Piper story, complete with mass child abductions, and ends with two children leaving home to follow the Piper, desperate to undo their innocent mistake and rescue the children. It ends on that note: two distraught children, with very little hope of overcoming the Machiavellian piper.

Sadly, this episode is no longer extant…for reasons that seem readily understandable. Shame, the animation was fantastic.
Just a good old tale about inter-species warfare and extermination!

“Ratha’s Creature” looked like Clan of the Cave Bear but with big cats, and had really mature class/ethnic status themes at its heart. Luckily the animated version mercifully alters the part where our hero mates with the “savage” saber-tooth cats before shunning them and ultimately genociding them into pre-history.

The “Dear God, What Did I Just See!?”

And it wouldn’t be a “Movies that Ruined My Childhood” entry if CBS Storybreak didn’t include some good ol’ fashioned nightmare fuel. Sure, some of the episodes could be disturbing – “Dragon’s Blood” involves a character making the ultimate sacrifice, and, well, read the above synopsis of “What Happened in Hamelin”. But one episode stands head and shoulders wings and claws above the competition:

“The Monster’s Ring”

The face of sheer horror!

In this terror tale, based on one of the Magic Shop books by Bruce Coville, has a bullied young boy buy a magic ring from the very shady Magic Shop. The ring grants him powers that initially are fantastic: he gets a makeover that scares the bullies away from him. As you’d guess, the honeymoon doesn’t last long and the more the boy wears the ring, the more monstrous – and permanent – his transformation becomes.

Here you go, kid, price: one soul!

This story is wrong on pretty much every level. The Magic Shop is a carnival of horrors, packed with creepy imagery. The shopkeeper is one hell of a jerk, giving a kid a ring that turns him (potentially permanently) into a vicious monster. As a monster, the kid’s first act is to rampage, literally trashing the neighborhood. He goes on to gaslight the bully, becoming kind of a jerk. It all ends when he learns to stand up to terrify into submission those who oppose him all by himself. What a great lesson!

And dear god, do the animators have a blast making him more hideous each time he changes!

Leaning all the way in on this one.

TV That…Complicated…My Childhood: CBS Storybreak.

TV That...Complicated...My Childhood: CBS Storybreak.
CBS Executive: “Listen, we’re going to get our butts handed to us by Disney if we don’t get some cute anthropomorphic animals in this dang show somehow!”

On the whole, I loved CBS Storybreak. When it was good, it was great. And for a budget TV series, it was frequently good. Even the sillier entries like “The Roquefort Gang” were at least as good as an episode of Disney’s The Rescue Rangers. By having so much variety, you got a really well-adjust introduction to age-appropriate literature. Sure, they took liberties if the book had too-adult themes, but each story was obviously chosen by people with an eye for great stories.

I guess that’s well worth the small price of waking up to night-sweats about turning into a vindictive gargoyle creature…

Price is still the same, take it or leave it kid.

4 Comments

  1. I’m glad to see that you gave this classic series some love, as it rarely gets talked about at all. There are, at least, a few of the episodes that I remember watching when I was growing up, but it’s one of my favorite animated series from my childhood (I was a ’90s kid), of the ’80s, by Hanna-Barbera (or Hanna-Barbera Australia), and of all time. I believe it’s one of the best shows (for the most part) the studio ever made. I love it even more than Reading Rainbow and Storytime, and find it to be among the most fascinating by HB. It’s one of H-B’s most underrated. I believe that the T.V. series, The Adventures of Gulliver and all of H-B’s movies, and specials based on literature prior paved the way for this, as well as the CBS Library show, and the ABC Weekend Specials by HB/HBA. CBS Storybreak has been compared to the Weekend Specials, but I think CBS Library has more in common with that, since both of those shows featured both cartoon and live-action episodes. It inspired me to get into reading more and I attempted to check out a book based on one of the episodes, but my library didn’t have it. I’d like to see this finally be brought to DVD, which shouldn’t be so difficult, since a few of the episodes were released individually on VHS.

  2. What did you mean when you said that What Happened In Hamelin no longer exists? Was that a comment on the episode being completely absent from sites like Youtube? Or does the episode literally no longer exist because it was destroyed for some reason?

    I hope it’s not the latter. I saw What Happened In Hamelin as a young boy and the supremely haunting conclusion of that retelling of The Pied Piper has always stayed with me. For years now, my fingers have been tightly crossed that somebody will upload it on Youtube.

    • According to Lost Media Wiki, What Happened in Hamelin has never been uploaded in its entirety, and it was one of two episodes that was not on the official VHS release. Unless somebody got lucky and it’s sitting on a VHS recording of the actual air-date, this animated gem is likely lost forever.

  3. Good day. I run the CBS Storybreak TV Animated Series facebook page and enjoyed the article. I believe they were several episodes never released to VHS out of the 26 I believe less than 10 ever got an official release. Being the show is based on so many different children’s books and at the time home video not being thought of much to include in contracts I think this is the reason we have never seen a complete series vhs or dvd release anywhere in the world because trying to work out rights for each owner of the book would probably be a nightmare. Though Warner Bros owns many HB properties this series was a work for hire for CBS and the VHS tapes episodes were produced by 20th Century Fox.

    You are right the only hope for episodes like ” What Happened in Hamlin ” if is someone has recorded it on a VHS tape and will upload it. I have a small next week’s preview clip for Hamlin on Facebook and it’s the only video footage I ever came across. The Great Ringtail Caper is another widely requested episode being the first episode that started it off. I have seen a VHS tape offered of SAT AM programming that claims to have the whole episode of Caper for Trade but it is a quite old listing.

    Hanna Barbera Australia aka Southern Star Animation also animated ” The Secret World of Og ” for ABC weekend special in 3 weekly parts which is out on DVD but may be OOP by now. I was hoping they might put episodes they animated for CBS storybreak in a set or individually but the last time I contacted them they told me to contact WB which in turns doesn’t own it like I said earlier. I guess the best hope for fans of the series is someday it will get licensed for streaming perhaps or someone uploads all the lost episodes!

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