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.
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.
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.
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.
“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”
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.
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!
TV That…Complicated…My Childhood: CBS Storybreak.
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…