Children’s Television Workshop (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. He was 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 the present 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. 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.
|Phil being thawed out by Mike and Dr. C.|
Cro’s family consisted of Ogg (Cummings), the selfish and bossy leader; Gogg, who was more sensitive and often translated for the other adopted member of the family, the less-evolved Bobb (both Frank Welker); and Nandy (Ruth Buzzi), the matriarch of the family who believed in a lot of urban legends. They lived in Woolyville with Phil’s herd of wooly mammoths, which included Esmeralda (Tress MacNeille), the oldest female an matriarch of the herd that ensured order was maintained and didn’t particularly care for the humans; Steamer (Chares Adler), the youngest member whose hyperactivity and playfulness often landed him in trouble; Ivanna (Laurie O”Brien), a southern belle that Phil had an attraction to; Earle (Welker), an elderly mammoth who preferred tradition and hated humans; Mojo (Adler), Earle’s younger brother who shared his views; and Pakka (Candi Milo), Cro’s best friend who often regaled him with mammoth facts.
|Cro with Gogg, Ogg, Nandy and Pakka.|
Cro debuted on ABC on September 18, 1993. Writers for the series included Sindy McKay, Jeremy Cushner, Len Uhley, Rich Rogel, Mark Seidenberg and Mark Zaslove, who also served as story editor and voice director. The music was composed by Stacy Widelitz, with Bill Trudel and Josef Powell performing the theme. Animation duties were handled by Plus One Entertainment, Sunwoo Entertainment and their subsidiary, Anivision America. 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 before it was cancelled. Since its run, only three video collections have been released by Republic Home Video, featuring two episodes each with bridging narration from Casella.
|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.