December 06, 2014


(ABC, September 18, 1993-October 22, 1994)

Children’s Television Workshop, Film Roman

Max Casella – Cro
Jim Cummings – Phil, Ogg, Murray
April Ortiz – Dr. Cecilia (aka Dr. C)
Frank Welker – Gogg, Bobb, Earle
Ruth Buzzi – Nandy
Laurie O’Brien – Ivanna
Candi Milo – Pakka
Charles Adler – Steamer, Mojo, Big Red
Tress MacNeille – Esmeralda
Jane Singer - Selene

            Children’s Television Workshop (CTW, now Sesame Workshop), the producers of Sesame Street, decided to try and reach a broader audience with its educational programming by making the move from stalwart partner PBS to the widely popular Saturday morning arena on giant network ABC. Their proposal was to adapt David Macaulay’s popular 1988 book The Way Things Work into an animated series.

Wheel and Axle explanation from The Way Things Work.

            The Way Things Work was an illustrated guide to everyday machines for children. It used playful imagery to cover simple elements like pulleys and levers and delved into more advanced things like telescopes and even light and sound. With words by Neil Ardley, these things were explained in diary form from the perspective of a Cro-Magnon man discovering them for the very first time. Aiding in this journey of discovery were woolly mammoths, which had been domesticated to serve multiple functions as pets, workers and inspiration for many future inventions. 

Cro, the star and focus of the show.

With 18 months of production time from ABC, a $7 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation, and along with Film Roman, CTW produced Cro. The series followed the adventures of Phil (Jim Cummings), a talking wooly mammoth who ended up frozen during the Ice Age and reawakened in the 20th Century when he’s found and thawed out by Dr. C (April Ortiz) and her assistant, Mike (Jussie Smollett). Phil ended up staying with them and regaled them with stories about the more-evolved 11-year-old boy named Cro (Max Casella), who often used his brains to get his adoptive family of Neanderthals out of sticky jams. Those stories would be inspired by a problem in their lives that required the use of physics to solve it, and were often similar to a situation that Cro had faced and solved through simple engineering.

Phil being thawed out by Mike and Dr. C.

In a departure from the book, it’s often the mammoths that guide Cro and the Neanderthals to their solutions, rather than being the domesticated servants of the humans as they learn. Macaulay was credited as a writer on the show. Although the series had high critical praise for its material and presentation, the show failed to find a suitable audience and only lasted two seasons, with the second being abbreviated, before it was cancelled. Since its run, only three video collections had been released by Republic Home Video, featuring two episodes each.

Compact Disks from The New Way Things Work.

In 1998, Macaulay wrote a sequel called The New Way Things Work, which added the workings of computers and digital technology while removing two pages from the previous volume. He also led the production of an animated series named after the book with a modified premise on the BBC in 1999. This show featured modern people living on an island inhabited by mammoths, who used outlandish contraptions to work through daily life. It debuted in 2001, but failed to find an audience or keep to a timely production schedule and was quickly cancelled after only 26 15-minute episodes in 2002. It was the shortest-run program, and the last educational effort, by the BBC.

EPISODE GUIDE (some episodes not yet available for synopsis):
Season 1:
“Just a Stone’s Throw Away” (9/18/93) – Phil shares the story of when Cro and the others used levers and catapults to save the lives of Bobb and Steamer after an earthquake.

“No Time For Steamer” (9/25/93) – Hem and Haw get tired of taking care of Steamer and insist everyone take equal turns.

“Destroy All Buckies” (10/2/93) – NO SYNOPSIS AVAILABLE.

“It’s Snow Problem” (10/9/93) – Cro devises a new invention to help the mammoths gather wood for their annual hot tub soak during an extremely cold winter.

“Let Me Help” (10/16/93) – NO SYNOPSIS AVAILABLE.

“The Legend of the Big Thing” (10/23/93) – Cro and his family set out to find a savage creature.

“Laugh Mammoth, Laugh” (10/30/93) – NO SYNOPSIS AVAILABLE.

“Pakka’s Cool Invention” (11/6/93) – Dr. C’s new invention reminds Phil of the time Pakka invented a fascinating new invention.

“Here’s Looking At You, Cro!” (11/13/93) – Cro and Pakka discover reflective rocks while Gogg and Ogg end up in a competition for tribal leader.

“No Way Up” (11/20/93) – Cro ends up trapped and his family has to save him.

“Adventures in Miscommunication” (11/27/93) – Failing to pay attention to Dr. C leads Phil to tell Mike a story about how important it is to always listen closely.

“Escape From Mung Island” (12/4/93) – Phil recalls when he and the others had to escape from Mung Island.

“Pulley For You” (12/11/93) – Falling through the floor reminds Phil of when Cro used a pulley to save Ogg after he fell into a tar pit.

“Things That Eat Mung in the Night” (12/18/93) – NO SYNOPSIS AVAILABLE.

Season 2:
“Meal Like A Pig” (9/17/94) – Cro and his family save the life of a pig that’s being hunted.

“What’s That Smell” (9/24/94) – NO SYNOPSIS AVAILABLE.

“Play It Again, Cro…Not!” (10/1/94) – Big Red wants Cro to help him play the violin as a ruse to get close to Steamer and capture him for dinner.

“Lever in a Million Years” (10/8/94) – Cro discovers how useful a lever is, but Ogg doesn’t like it and kicks Cro out of the group.

“Turn Up the Heat” (10/15/94) – NO SYNOPSIS AVAILABLE.

“They Move Mammoths, Don’t They?” (10/22/94) - NO SYNOPSIS AVAILABLE.

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