In recent years, TV reboots and revivals have been all the rage. We’ve seen the returns of The X-Files, Full House (as Fuller House), Will & Grace, Twin Peaks, DuckTales, Charmed, Murphy Brown, Dynasty, and Queer Eye just to name several. And while they’ve been a mixed bag when it comes to reviews and viewership, with some being more successful than others, there are still many more reboots in the works for years to come.
Now add Animaniacs onto that list. And fittingly, it references (in song) all of the above shows by the end of the first episode.
After 22 years off the air, the much-beloved animated comedy returns with all-new adventures for the Warner brothers (and Warner sister) and Pinky & The Brain on Hulu. Also along for the ride: copious amounts of wacky slapstick comedy, meta-humor, pop culture references, and some political satire. And the good news is for the most part this return is a success.
“It’s Time for Animaniacs!” — A Quick Primer
For those who didn’t grow up with it, the best way to describe Animaniacs is that it’s basically an animated sketch/variety show: it’s almost like Saturday Night Live with its use of recurring skits and characters.
Created by Tom Ruegger and executive produced by Steven Spielberg, the show debuted in 1993 and ran for 99 episodes until 1998. The general format is that each episode is made up of three segments, each with its own cast and plot, with short interstitials. And that’s basically it; there’s no overarching plot or character arcs to follow. As such, viewers can jump in at any time with no problem.
The show’s premise (as such) centers on the Warner siblings Yakko (Rob Paulsen), Wakko (Jess Harnell), and Dot (Tress MacNeille): three mischievous 1930s cartoon stars of an unknown species who were locked away in the Warner Bros. Water Tower in Burbank until they escaped in the ‘90s. Hilarity ensues as they run amok and cause chaos on the studio lot, as well as doing pop culture parodies or inserting themselves into history.
The other segments (to name a few) follow Pinky (Paulsen) and the Brain (Maurice LaMarche), two genetically-engineered lab mice who constantly plot and attempt to take over the world; Slappy Squirrel, an elderly and cranky cartoon star trying to educate her chipper young nephew Skippy; the Goodfeathers, three pigeons modeled on the main characters from Goodfellas; Buttons and Mindy, which follows a dog constantly trying to keep an oblivious toddler safe from trouble; and Chicken Boo, a giant rooster who somehow manages to pass for human despite his flimsy disguises. Pinky and the Brain proved so popular they were spun off into their own show.
“Goodnight, Everybody!” — The Appeal of ‘Animaniacs’
So knowing what the show’s about and how it works, what is it about it that makes it endure? What made it so popular among kids and adults in the first place? The answer is in how varied its humor is.
For starters, there’s its parodies. Animaniacs would parody popular movies, TV shows, trends, and celebrities and public figures of the time. Whether it’s Friends, Seinfeld or Power Rangers, or Disney animated films, or even people like Bill Clinton and Saddam Hussein; if something was a big deal in the Nineties, there’s a pretty good chance Animaniacs referenced it. But the pop culture references go beyond that, with nods to the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Gilbert and Sullivan, World War II cartoons, and Apocalypse Now. Even Brain’s voice is based on that of Orson Welles.
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As such, the show’s comedy works on two levels. Kids can laugh at the show’s cute characters, funny slapstick humor (reminiscent of the classic Looney Tunes cartoons), and some of the things it’s spoofing. And it can even be educational, to a point: the show sometimes offers an abridged version of historical events whenever the characters take part. In addition, the show featured many song parodies, some with educational lyrics: one by Yakko names and points out every country in the world, and another by Wakko lists all the states and their capitals.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, older viewers and adults can appreciate the puns and wordplay in the dialogue and the more obscure cultural references; like The Simpsons, Animaniacs rewards you for being smart. This segues into another of the show’s hallmarks: beyond just references, the show was filled with hidden innuendo and subtle but risqué jokes that somehow managed to get past the censors. Just look up Youtube for a supercut of the show’s innuendos. And ask any Nineties kid about “fingerprints” in the context of the show and they’ll definitely get it.
“We’ve Missed So Much!” — The Return
Fast-forward to today and the show has now returned. The show’s revival brings back Spielberg as executive producer, most of the voice cast, and the show’s songwriter Randy Rogel. New to the show is showrunner Wellesley Wild, a frequent Seth MacFarlane collaborator whose credits include Family Guy as well as co-writing the Ted movies.
The good news for longtime fans is that despite the 22 year gap, little has changed about the show’s look or tone. The above still applies: the way each episode is structured, the mix of low- and high-brow cultural references, the parodies, and the barely-hidden dirty jokes. While the show has some more mature jokes thanks to being on a streaming service, it’s still safe for kids to watch.
The first episode pretty much sets the tone as the Warner siblings get caught up on what they’ve missed out on. And after that it’s back to basics, alternating between the Warners’ hijinks and Pinky & the Brain’s continuing attempts at world domination. Some fans might be disappointed by the absences of much of the supporting cast; a later episode does explain things and leaves the door open for them to return in future seasons. As it’s not serialized, viewers can watch the later episodes in pretty much any order; it’s also good for watching in short bursts since segments in each episode only clock in at just a little over 10 minutes at most.
The show’s sound continues to be top-notch thanks to the return of Paulsen, Harnell, MacNeille, and LaMarche perfectly re-embodying their characters, as well as the fantastic use of orchestrated music. The use of hand-drawn animation is also beautiful, maintaining the feel of the original show while boasting a cleaner and sleeker look. And occasionally the show will dabble in different art styles, like parodies of anime and the chibi style. One can tell that the animators put in a lot of work on the show.
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But the main question is, is it funny? Yes, with a caveat.
Despite the show’s scripts being written in 2018 (which the show quickly points out), much of the comedy still hits the mark. There’s the slapstick comedy and silliness that can make kids laugh and is still consistently funny, as well as the use of satire. Fittingly, the Animaniacs poke fun at our current culture: whether it’s our preoccupation with social media and memes, the culture of reboots and revivals, our reliance on technology, and even “manspreading” and hipster donuts. The show also satirizes Greek mythology, the French Revolution, and the Red Scare, while also parodying and referencing works like Ex Machina, Murder on the Orient Express, and The Manchurian Candidate. It’s the kind of humor the show does very well and continues to do so.
But it’s the political jokes that might be a bit polarizing. While the old show was never afraid to take potshots at political issues, the jokes here feel a bit more forced and heavy-handed, as if they were obligated to do it. The jabs at Fox News, Donald Trump, and third-party candidates are pretty funny if a bit obvious. There’s one episode in particular that uses bunnies as an allegory for gun control. Also, it feels like this season comes down especially hard on Russia, with jokes about election interference as well as falling back on stale stereotypes about Russia. Personally, I still got a chuckle out of these and their willingness to “go there”, and I liked that the show more or less took clear stances on things. But I can also see others being turned off by this overly political approach or finding it outdated in a post-election 2020.
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Overall, the new Animaniacs is one of the rare revivals that actually succeeds: as witty and subversive as the original, but with a shinier coat of paint. And while the political humor might not be to everyone’s liking, the rapid-fire pace means viewers won’t have to wait too long for the next joke. For those who grew up with the Warners and Pinky & the Brain, and Saturday morning cartoons, I recommend it. It’s just nice to see them again, and their brand of fun humor is much appreciated in these difficult times.
The first season of Animaniacs 2020 reboot is now on Hulu.
By Mario Yuwono
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