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It would be unlike Yakko, Wakko and Dot Warner to get resurrected as part of TV’s reboot/remake obsession without a scathing commentary on TV’s reboot/remake obsession.
Fortunately, the premiere of the Hulu incarnation of Animaniacs is dedicated predominantly to extended reflections on both changes to the country since the Warner siblings last emerged from the water tower on the Warner Bros. studio lot in Burbank in 1998 and the cultural shift that freed them at this particular moment.
AIR DATE Nov 20, 2020
As their reboot song puts it frankly, “If you wanna make some easy cash/Just recycle and rehash,” and as Yakko acknowledges at the end of the ditty, “[W]hen we sell out, we know we’re selling out, so it’s cool.”
Unfortunately, the first episode is as good as this reboot of Animaniacs gets. What follows in the five episodes from the season cherrypicked and sent to critics is an innocuous disappointment. This definitely isn’t the sort of disappointing reboot that makes you angry about the general state of television. (Hi, Fuller House!) Nor is it the sort of disappointing reboot that forces you to unavoidably devalue a show you previously loved. (Hi, Netflix seasons of Arrested Development!) No, the new Animaniacs is just the sort of minor disappointment that makes you go, “I know I used to enjoy this show … Heh, that was kinda funny … Now why aren’t I laughing more?”
As a reminder, Animaniacs ran for 99 episodes between 1993 and 1998, first on Fox and then on The WB. Produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and Warner Bros. Animation as something of a follow-up to Tiny Toon Adventures (which ran its own 98 episodes from 1990 to 1992 and is, of course, getting its own reboot), Animaniacs was packed with crazily diverse pop culture references, clever songs and general zaniness. In addition to the core skits featuring the anarchic Warner siblings, Animaniacs featured a revolving cast of secondary sketch characters, dominated by Pinky and the Brain, but featuring the memorable likes of Slappy Squirrel, the Goodfeathers, and Buttons and Mindy.
The Hulu reboot, ordered for two seasons, is an interesting mixture of continuity and overhaul. Series creator Tom Ruegger isn’t back, with Family Guy veteran Wellesley Wild taking over as showrunner. Of great importance, though, key vocal stars Rob Paulsen (Yakko, Pinky), Tress MacNeille (Dot), Jess Harnell (Wakko) and Maurice LaMarche (The Brain) return, meaning that even if the characters don’t always talk the way the used to talk, they at least sound the way they used to sound. And of perhaps utmost importance, Randy Rogel is back writing several of the myriad new songs, and the music comes from Julie and Steven Bernstein, who worked under Richard Stone on the original series.
The original series was always praised, correctly, for the layers of humor that allowed it to be appreciated by viewers of all ages. You could come for the silly plotlines and stay for the sight gags, puns and generation-spanning references, or you could come for the minutiae and remain generally entertained by the rest.
If I had to summarize my issues with the reboot in the most succinct way possible, I’d say the new Animaniacs nails all of the little things that fans loved about the show, but struggles with the bigger picture, the narrative delivery mechanism. I can’t say for sure if that directly relates to Wild’s background on Family Guy, a show that has become so addicted to its cutaway gags that a recent episode found the Griffin family trapped in a recursive loop of increasingly uncontrollable ones. There’s no “show” to Family Guy and there hasn’t been one for a long time, but I can still chuckle at the occasional non-sequitur.
Watching these new Animaniacs episodes, I still loved the wide-ranging references and there will always be room in my heart for a show capable of nodding to Oldboy, Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and vintage Soviet animation aesthetics. The songs, peppered liberally through episodes, are all catchy. The episodic titles are mostly clever and the variant line at the end of the pleasantly refurbished theme song is always worth listening for. And the animation itself, polished to an HD sheen, is better and more versatile than ever; an otherwise so-so installment gets a big boost from shifting to anime for a couple of minutes.
But I don’t recall ever feeling like an Animaniacs segment was tedious before, even accepting that I had certain preferences when it came to certain supporting characters and would simply skip the occasional B-segment if I wasn’t in the mood. Here, with episodes expanded to between 24 and 26 minutes apiece, there isn’t a single sketch that couldn’t be improved with some trimming and some satirical tightening. After the reboot-centric premiere, I’m not sure the new Animaniacs really captures a perspective on Hollywood, and the political material is less pointed and much less specific than what the show did back in the Clinton era.
The Pinky and the Brain segments are the most padded, which is odd because they do the same thing every week: Try to take over the world. So yes, the Brain’s individual plans may vary episode-to-episode, but there’s no excuse for ever needing to glance at your watch when Pinky and the Brain are scheming, a pity because these segments are still consistently better arced than whatever the Warner siblings are up to. Plus, nothing on the show makes me laugh more reliably than Pinky’s assumptions about what the Brain is thinking.
Animaniacs is also the third young-skewing sketch show this year to send critics a selection of out-of-order review episodes failing to accentuate a diversity of characters. It really bugged me with Disney+’s Muppets Now and bugged me a tiny bit with Looney Tunes Cartoons on HBO Max. Here, given that fans already knew how many recurring characters wouldn’t be returning, it’s odd that critics were sent five episodes each featuring the Warner siblings and Pinky and the Brain. The only other potentially recurring characters to get their own sketch that I’ve seen are Cindy and Starbox — a little girl and the even littler malevolent alien she treats as a doll — and that one sketch was perhaps the only one in five episodes that didn’t feel overlong to me.
As Brain explains to Pinky in the pilot, “To take over the world, you must give the people what they truly want.” I think Hulu and the new Animaniacs team decided that meant “more.” Having watched much of the season, I’ll offer my own answer: “better.”
Premieres Friday, Nov. 20, on Hulu.
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