Recently I found out from TvTropes that the very highly acclaimed 90’s cartoon Animaniacs will be getting a revival on Hulu on November 20. No real news yet other than most of the main cast is returning and it’s going to have a slightly different art style. Early look here.
As it turns out, this was one of my favorite shows when it first aired, and I got the entire DVD set not too long ago. (I put this off for a long time; what finally pushed me was when someone on The Mary Sue brought up the Please Please Please Get A Life Foundation. No, really.) So far I’ve been doing a skim-through run, mostly recording all the inbetween filler segments like Good Idea Bad Idea and Mime Time (I’m really big on fun with Excel) and noting segments that I missed in the initial TV run. I only have the last disk and the movie to go, and…this isn’t easy for me to say, especially given the almost universal acclaim this has gotten (which for once I think is deserved), but I gotta say it.
It’s not that great.
It’s good, mind you, and there are plenty of very funny moments. But there are also lots of drab or even annoying moments, including an unsettling number of segments I simply can’t watch again (many of them involving Wakko, I notice).
Let’s start with what are unquestionably the stars, the Warner trio and Slappy Squirrel (with Skippy Squirrel in a surprisingly well-written sidekick role). The Warners, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot, manage to combine a complete lack of boundaries or inhibitions with impressive depth of character and a truly startling level of knowledge (particularly Yakko, for whom singing the nations of the world was just a warmup). It’s as if WB was carrying on the legacy of Tiny Toon Adventures while simultaneously apologizing for cancelling Freakazoid, and as a result they’re almost always bitingly funny and a joy to watch. ALMOST always. They’ve had more than a few very, very low points; constantly torturing Dr. Scratchansniff and going way overboard in punishing Ivan Blosky come to mind. Slappy? Best part of the show, and I’m not interested in fighting anybody. She continuously flaunted her wits, genre savviness, unrelenting cynicism, utter fearlessness, and control of every situation (her Herculean strength certainly didn’t hurt in that regard). She was an absolutely awesome character, the perfect example of how to make a dangerous antagonist genuinely likable. And then…there were the evil crap. Brutalizing a pair of critics just for giving an unfavorable review of her cartoons. Threatening to blow up a jury to get a not guilty verdict, then blowing them up anyway. That whole business with the blue jay.
Even with these blemishes, I find that they’re consistently entertaining and frequently funny, which is a lot more than I can say for the other segments:
Pinky and the Brain: A popular one, probably because it’s a lot more cerebral than the usual cartoon fare (and Maurice Lamarche did a fantastic job portraying a cynical brainiac constantly on the verge of a meltdown). There were plenty of good lines, and the interplay between the ditzy Pinky and the intelligent but careless Brain is the best use of the “wunza” formula I’ve seen in a cartoon. The problem is that it’s no fun seeing them fail every single time. And always either due to Pinky screwing things up or Brain making an inexplicable oversight. By the end it was getting incredibly heavy-handed to the point where it almost pained me to look. Probably just as well this got spun off into its own series.
Rita and Runt: Big, bombastic Broadway tunes were never really my thing, which is too bad, because what’s left is an awkward wunza based on a fairly ludicrous premise (Runt doesn’t know she’s a cat? Really?) that ultimately is every bit as forced as Pinky and the Brain. I guess there are some…somewhat touching moments, but mostly they just look awkward together.
Goodfeathers: See gangster birds get mangled. See boss bird mumble some nonsense. See gangster birds get mangled some more. See chump bird say something innocuous to violent moron bird. See violent moron bird completely misinterpret a 3rd-grade level word and beat the crap out of chump bird. See useless poseur bird watch and laugh. Repeat ad nauseum.
Chicken Boo: Giant rooster that’s very obviously a giant rooster puts on a flimsy disguise which only one person sees through, mentions it, and is either mocked or shouted down, giant rooster saves the day, giant rooster loses his clothing, everyone sees that he’s a giant rooster, which is somehow an unforgivable sin which completely invalidates the good he did and gets him run out of town. Every single Chicken Boo cartoon was like this to the letter. Even Thaddeus Plotz couldn’t break the formula!
Buttons and Mindy: Oh, look, a dog suffering through endless abuse to protect a girl and getting punished for some petty crap at the end! You’ll laugh ‘till you collapse! But wait, there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation…it’s a riff on LASSIE! Which was a reference the target audience would totally get in the mid-90’s!
The Hiphippos: They’re really fat and heavy! They’re elitist! Apparently that was supposed to be enough!
Minerva Mink: She drives the men completely bananas! She’s a shameless flirt! She’s a golddigger! Apparently that was supposed to be enough! (At least she only lasted a couple episodes before been shoved to the back burner because the censors thought she was inappropriate, although how she crosses the line but endless animal abuse doesn’t is beyond my capability to explain.)
Katie Ka-boom: She has incredibly violent mood swings! That’s…gah.
The worst part is that these characters never have any real interactions with each other…the closest we get are cameo flybys and the occasional ensemble piece…so it doesn’t come across as a rich, shared universe so much as a bunch of wacky neighbors the Warners point and laugh at to varying degrees. (The “Animaniacs Stew” episode was such a great example of how mixing things up could provide fresh angles to old storylines that it’s a shame that they never did it again.) It only gets worse over time, as dropping Minerva (censors), Pinky and The Brain (spinoff), and Rita and Runt (Bernadette Peters’ price tag) means that they have to lean on the other, even staler characters a lot more…when the freaking Hiphippos are your second stringers, you have no second stringers. At times it seems like the writers were really hurting for new material that didn’t involve the Warners or the Squirrels. There’s one episode in season 3 where the entire third act is filler material (Mime Time, Colin, and Good Idea Bad Idea), a sure sign of desperation if I’ve ever seen it.
And the question I keep asking myself is, why didn’t I realize this sooner? I’d just started college when the first episode aired, so it’s not like I was some starry-eyed callow youth. And while I definitely wanted an alternative to the grossly overrated Beavis and Butthead, the 90’s weren’t lacking for these at all: Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego, prime The Simpsons, The PJs, X-Men, Exo Squad, Duckman, and even Animaniacs’ predecessor Tiny Toon Adventures, to name a few.
Again, this was a GOOD cartoon overall, but I wouldn’t call it great, and certainly not the greatest anything of all time.
(Also, I’m aware of the “adult” stuff, I just never thought it was anything special or even all that pervasive. I hadn’t even heard of Apocalypse Now when I saw that one PATB episode.)
What do you all think? And does this revival have a chance? (I’m thinking of getting a Hulu free trial to catch some of it, but I probably won’t get a subscription just to see all of the two planned seasons.)