Animaniacs, then and now

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! :man_facepalming: 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! :man_facepalming:

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. :angry:

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.)

I was in my late 20s/early 30s when Animaniacs first ran, and I was working during the daytime when it typically ran, so I didn’t get to see it often, but I did enjoy it a lot.

That said, reading through your summary, and thinking back on watching the old series, I realized that I only really enjoyed the segments with Yakko, Wakko, and Dot, and Pinky and the Brain (though Slappy Squirrel wasn’t bad). I remember tolerating the other ones, but not enjoying them terribly much (particularly the hippos, because they just weren’t funny).

One of my favorite “adult” references (other than “finger Prince,” of course :smiley: ) was “Meatballs and Consequences,” when the Warners went to Sweden, for Wakko to enter a Swedish meatball-eating contest. He eats so many meatballs that he dies, and Death (with a Swedish accent) declares Wakko to be “living-impaired,” taking him to the afterlife. Yakko and Dot insist on coming along, and the segment is a spoof of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, with the Warners playing checkers against Death.

As for the revival, I imagine that there’ll be a lot of nostalgic interest in it, but I, too, don’t plan to subscribe to Hulu to see it.

Hey, cool. A show from way back doesn’t stand up to your now refined tastes. Now tell us transformers or robotech or thundercats or voltron suck.

This is the downside of binge-watching. When you only get one episode per week, you spend the next week fondly reminiscing about the good stuff, and the bad stuff drops out of your consciousness. When you watch an entire season in one weekend, you cannot escape from the bad stuff, and it starts to annoy.

Yup. Some of it was great and some of it was boring, and the ratio doesn’t matter much, because all we remember is the great parts.

Animaniacs was not a show for adults. It was a show for children with enough subversion and reference to make it palatable for parents.

Yes, the parts aimed at adults were often very, very good. And there was tons more stuff for grownups than Tiny Toon Adventures, which was also Spielberg produced and also had its share of adult humor. But judging the kid-centric content as if it was supposed to be revelatory or groundbreaking is silly.

Somebody needs a few extra spins on the wheel of morality.

Animaniacs was a kids’ show. But it was a kids’ show in what was a still an era of mass entertainment, when many viewers only had a choice of what was on a handful of broadcast channels, and even those with cable had a small fraction of the options available now. And there really weren’t any “on-demand” options, so you watched what was actually airing in real time.

In that entertainment landscape, the makers of Animaniacs knew that a large chunk of the audience for daytime kids’ shows, and their audience in particular, were actually adults, particularly college students. But a large chuck were still young children. So they tried to make a show that would included elements, even entire segments, that would primarily appeal to the different segments of their audience. Some of the humor was intended primarily for young children. Some of it for tweens. Some for teenagers. Some for college students. Some for older animation fans. And some in-jokes just for themselves.

So, yeah, watching it a couple of decades later, a lot of it falls flat. Because a lot of it was never intended to appeal to an adult in the first place. In its era, and for what it was trying to accomplish, I think it was brilliant.

ETA: ninja’d by Johnny_Bravo. Which, given the subject, seems freakishly appropriate…

After reading your post and looking at the show’s Wikipedia article, I think you’re correct in that the adult portions of the show weren’t just for parents as I said, but for a broader adult audience.

The OP also mentions Tiny Toons Adventures, but I don’t think there’s any real comparison, there. You know what I remember about that show? Snippets of the theme song, and a couple of character names (mostly because they were named in the theme song). And I remember noting at the time that a lot of the gags were recycled from the real Loony Toons cartoons, but today I can’t even remember which ones. That’s it.

I remember plenty of details from Animaniacs, and Duck Tales, and Tailspin, and Darkwing Duck, and even Tazmania (though I think that one was just starting when I went off to college). But I can’t remember anything substantive from Tiny Toons. Maybe that’s just a hole in my memory, but I think it’s just that the show wasn’t very memorable.

My children LOVE Animaniacs. They sort of like Tiny Toon Adventures. And they’re firmly 21st century children, having been born in 2011 and 2014. So that kid stuff still apparently holds up just fine.

But as an adult, I find myself being surprised that there are as many latter-day pop culture references that there were- stuff that I don’t even know that a kid of that era would understand. And I keep finding myself kind of surprised at the 90s era casual attitudes toward mild sexual harassment and general dickishness. I mean, the Warner bros’ attitude toward attractive women is a bit surprising seeing it through a 2019-2020 lens, and then thinking that it’s a kid show.

But it’s still funny nonetheless. And some parts are still hilarious- Pinky and the Brain comes to mind, as do a lot of the Warners’ segments. I never did like Goodfeathers or Slappy Squirrel much, even when it was first run (was in my early 20s then), and still don’t.

I’m looking forward to the remake, but I’m curious how they can keep the show funny and faithful while not running afoul of modern-day mores.

Watched it as a parent with my eldest mostly. Tried to get him to learn the state capitals song.

It was part of a host of cartoons that looked great mostly in comparison to the cartoons of the several years before. Ren and Stimpy also doesn’t always hold up well but after the era of GI Joe it was amazing!

heh, I wonder what the op thought about hysteria… the battles with warners over that one is why Amblin started producing toons for fox family …

You missed the point of good feathers tho… that was just steve having some fun with his Hollywood friends marty and frank and the movies they were making at the time

The new episodes premiere November 20 on Hulu. Can’t wait.

What does “wunza” mean?

“One’s a cop, one’s a con man; they fight crime!”

I had to look it up; it looks like it’s a term for high concept descriptions of the characters in buddy cop films (“One’s a…”), and was coined by Roger Ebert. In the Wikipedia article on Buddy Cop Films:

Oh, thanks. So it’s like “The Odd Couple” or “The Defiant Ones.”

Or “It Happened One Night.”

I suppose it depends on to for whom are they making it as prime audience. Todays kids who’ll watch it and their GenX or Millennial parents – who were the 1990s kids who watched it at home, and their older sibs who watched it while in HS/college? Those Millennials’ Boomer parents who cught the adult references in the 1990s?

My take would be to be clear up front if we are or are not attempting to directly recreate the 1990s Animaniacs, or rather keeping the spirit of it. Material that the kids will enjoy, and an ocassional wink-and-nod to the parents, in the style and by the standards of our time just as the original was done in the style and by the standards of the 1990s.

Maybe an ocassional callback – like the Nurse shows up and a character gets as far as “Hel…” before the others pile up on him “oh no you don’t”, or she’s clad head to toe in PPE and someone fourth-walls “You didn’t think we’d do that old gag now, did you?”.

Part of the appeal of the show was that it was not so much in the style of its time but had strong influences of the 40s and 50s Warner cartoons.