Reboots. It seems like every creative property from the 1980s and 1990s is getting them now. Some are labors of love meant to update classic properties for the sensibilities of a new generation. Others are shameless cash-grabs by whoever can license the property. Hither comes Animaniacs, which jokes about being the latter, but is (despite some rough spots) largely the former.
Animaniacs, for those who don’t remember or weren’t alive at the time, was a cartoon that introduced Pythonian absurdism to Nineties preteens behind the façade of a revival of classic 1930’s animation. It had the slapstick humor of the original Looney Tunes cartoons, as well as the same referential humor and celebrity cameos that were topical for the time but completely lost on younger audiences when the cartoons were rerun on TV decades later. The irony that the original Animaniacs is now equally dated to Gen-Z makes up a good portion of the humor of Hulu’s Animaniacs revamp (particularly in the first few episodes) but does not dominate it.
The original show featured a large ensemble, but mostly centered upon The Warner Siblings, Yakko, Wakko and Dot; a trio of unidentifiable ink blot animal kids, whose meta-humor fueled antics only confused the audiences of the 1930s. The Warners were sealed inside the water tower on the Warner Bros. studio lot, only to escape in 1993 and run wild driving people crazy. Another popular part of Animaniacs, which earned its own spin-off, was Pinky and The Brain, which centered around two lab mice (one a super-genius, the other insane) who try to take over the world with increasingly improbable schemes.
Yakko, Wakko, Dot, Pinky & The Brain are back in the revival, with their original voice actors from the Nineties series; Jess Harnell (Wakko), Maurice LeMarche (The Brain), Tress MacNeille (Dot) and Rob Paulsen (Yakko and Pinky). This is fortunate, as the original series’ cast won Emmys and Annies for their performances. Yet the entire cast of the revamp is made up of a Who’s Who of legendary voice actors and the quick-eared will hear the likes of Carlos Alazraqui, Phil LaMarr, Ralph Garman and many more among the supporting cast.
The new series does introduce some new ensemble members, but none of them get more than a single episode in this first season. One of the more memorable of these is Starbox and Cindy, which centers around a diminutive alien warlord who is adopted by a young girl and suffers repeated abuse. While not the most original idea (The anime series Sgt. Frog was built around the same premise) the show’s writers do put a neat spin on the concept. Another new character of note is The Incredible Gnome in People’s Mouths, who emerges from people’s mouths to randomly tell off various people for their bad behavior when nobody else will. A lazily written name, but a funny premise, if only for a one-off cartoon.
The show has already proven divisive on-line. Some political conservatives have taken the show to task for its jokes disrespecting Donald Trump. Some political liberals are complaining the show is anti-Trans, because the new theme song has a lyric about the show now being “gender balanced, pronoun neutral and ethnically diverse” after a line about how the new show is the product of “focus group research.” All of these complaints ignore that Animaniacs has always been an equal opportunity offender and the new series is no different.
Yes, there is a segment where the Warners torment a Tucker Carlson parody called Tuck Buckerson, but one of the new Pinky and The Brain cartoons (in which The Brain runs for President) features a Rachel Maddow stand-in named Raquel Madcow. Yes, Donald Trump is depicted as an orange-skinned cyclops in the Warners’ take on The Odyssey but The Brain declares that the genetically perfect First Lady he created for himself has “a little too much Hillary Clinton” after she asserts that they are visiting her parents for Thanksgiving.
Personally, I think the show has found the right balance between the comedy of yesteryear and modern sensibilities and that its heart is in the right place. For instance, the new theme song introducing the cast declares that “Dot has wit” instead of “Dot is cute.” Dot is still cute, of course. In fact, one episode centers around her acquiring the power to make everything around her kawaii, like Lisa Frank and Sanrio had a baby together. But we’re no longer emphasizing her looks over every aspect of her personality.
I will say that Episode 4 was a major misstep and I understand why some people swore off the show after getting to that point. The opening cartoon is a parable for gun violence in the United States, with a maniac rabbit rancher named Dwayne LaPistol (a caricature of NRA president Wayne LaPierre) trying to sell everyone as many buns as possible. Thankfully, this is the most political the show gets and even the Warners seem annoyed by how preachy the whole thing is.
Thankfully, the shows become stronger as the season goes on, and the final few could stand alongside the best episodes of the original series. My personal favorite, “Fear and Laughter in Burbank,” is in Episode 11 and it’s an honestly disturbing parody of the reboot of It, in which the Warners have to keep their souls from being eaten by Nicklewise the Dancing Clown. (For bonus old school points, Yakko, Wakko and Dot are trick-or-treating as Groucho, Harpo and Chico Marx.)
Despite a few weak bits here and there, Animaniacs is a reboot done right. The voice acting and animation are top notch and the humor that offends says more about the offended than the show. I can’t wait for Season 2 and the promise of a Freakazoid revival maybe spinning out of this.