The Animaniacs reboot, reviewed: Zany is harder to pull off in 2020
The Warner Brothers—and the Warner Sister—are back, thanks to Hulu. The streamer has rebooted the Emmy-winning, enormously popular Animaniacs, stalwart of 1990s afternoons, for a new generation and a new era.
Animaniacs first hit the small screen in 1993, part of a cohort of cartoons that tried to reach young audiences in a whole new way. At the highest level, Animaniacs was an animated variety show, with the main plot, such as it was, centered on Yakko, Wakko, and Dot Warner, animated creations from the 1930s who spent most of the 20th century locked up in a water tower until their escape in the 1990s. The show’s artistic DNA seemed to be equal parts Looney Tunes and Laugh-In, with a Dadaist streak and a heavy dose of Mel Brooks-style parody woven through.
Animaniacs was, in the end, a pretty weird show, equal parts absurdist and educational. And that suited me perfectly because I was, frankly, a pretty weird kid.
I was in middle school when Animaniacs began airing, right on the cusp of an exceptionally awkward and uncomfortable adolescence. I was the only child of two classical musicians, one of whom was also a politics junkie and total history buff. I could tell you anything you’d like to know about the Hollywood studio system, the music of Georg Freidrich Handel, or the rise and fall of the Soviet bloc, but I couldn’t name more than two of 1993’s Top 40 songs if you’d paid me.
And along came Animaniacs, a kids’ show that didn’t talk down to me. It felt, at the time, as though it had infinite layers. Not only could you get your daily dose of slapstick (and how), but also it had educational songs that actually stuck, wrapped in layers of slyly referential humor that rewarded you for paying attention—and for being able to get the references. Suddenly all that absolutely useless knowledge in my head about 1930s and 1940s Hollywood was useful. In a show carefully designed for the kids and the adults to laugh in completely different places, I was able to laugh in both, and Animaniacs seemed to relish giving me the opportunity.
But as Yakko, Wakko, and Dot themselves are the first to tell you during the pilot episode of the reboot—in song, of course—the world has changed quite a lot in the past 27 years. Nostalgia is cheap and easy; the adults who were once ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s kids are not above lapping it up at any opportunity. But a reference by itself is neither zany nor amusing, and today’s children have a decidedly different media diet and bar for humor than we did. So with constantly connected computers in our pockets, bringing us the latest and greatest in short-form humor on demand at all times, is there still room in our century for Animaniacs to be, well, funny?
I watched the first four episodes this weekend with my 7-year-old (more about her opinions in a bit) to find out. The answer, luckily, is yes—but it takes some time to get there. Much like Good Idea, Bad Idea, you need to see the positives and the negatives juxtaposed in order to get the most out of what you’re watching.
The nostalgia is the joke
Animaniacs was always a deliberately self-aware show that existed to break the fourth wall and frolic in a meta-referential field. That was one of its charms. The new show, however, lays that on so think in the first couple of episodes that the charm wears off. Fast.
The word that appears most often in my notes is lampshading: a trope wherein a creator specifically calls out some ludicrous thing they’re doing (i.e., hanging a lampshade on it) to make sure you know they know that you know. Animaniacs is very thorough with its lampshades: there’s a whole song-and-dance number (literally) in the first segment about how this isn’t the 1990s anymore, in which the Warners explain that their job is pop culture and that pop culture has changed.
Unfortunately, as the Warners also explain, the episode was written in 2018. Traditional TV takes time, even when you design it for a streaming service, and time is not on the Warners’ side when it comes to topicality. In 2020, a trend can hit TikTok at breakfast, be all over Twitter by lunchtime, and be yesterday’s news by dinner, and TV just can’t move that fast.
As a result, Animaniacs‘ jokes about Donald Trump feel deeply passé when the show is thinking about the covfefe era and we are now into the lame-duck period, and a Game of Thrones reference landed with an entire thud. Other attempts to stay topical feel almost ghoulish against the 2020 we ended up having: a segment riffing on the Olympics, for example, serves only to remind us that we cancelled the Olympics this year because of a widespread pandemic.
When the show leans into its worst impulses, it seems to become all form and forget its function. A Red Scare setup twice removed—told by a generation of adults who heard about it from their grandparents, rather than by a generation of adults who lived through it—feels pointless. Riffing on an idea from the ’50s by way of riffing on the ’90s becomes such a tangled nest of referents that it’s more dull than entertaining, and it borders on the offensive when it leans on ancient, dried-out stereotypes to do so.
But when Animaniacs widens its scope just the tiniest bit more, it works. Gloriously. Where the show find its feet is not in rehashing everything the Warners already did nearly 30 years ago but, instead, in discovering what the Warners can do now.
The first bit that made me genuinely laugh aloud—a real, hearty laugh—came at the tail end of episode 4, when the Warners don black turtlenecks to advertise a new ultrashort-form video service, “Bloompf.” It is a parody for today broadly, not for a single frozen moment in our fleeting decade, and it’s delivered with impeccable timing and a keen understanding of what, in our current reality, is best lampooned.
To prove their mousey worth, they’ll overthrow the Earth…
I, like many others, was a big fan of the “Pinky and the Brain” segments in the original. The genetically altered, megalomaniac lab mice were so popular that they earned their own spinoff show, which ran from 1995 to 1998. To this day, I can still sing every word of the theme song from their spinoff (which is two verses longer than the version in Animaniacs shorts). I particularly enjoy answering, “I think so, Brain, but how are we going to make pencils that taste like bacon?” in a deliberately atrocious mockery of Pinky’s already-atrocious accent whenever my 7-year-old asks if I know what she’s thinking.
I mention all this to explain how much it pains me to admit that Animaniacs‘ 2020 edition has, in fact, given us far, far too much of a good thing. This is not to say that Pinky and the Brain are unwelcome or that they have run out of creative ideas for taking over the Earth. But the way they feature in every episode, unsparingly, lends a sense of dry, formulaic necessity to their presence.
The opening credits of the whole show, both old and new, asks us to, “Meet Pinky and the Brain, who want to rule the universe,” and that’s all well and good. But in lieu of Goodfeathers flock together / Slappy whacks ’em with her purse in the rebooted opening credits, we have instead the line, our brand-new cast who tested well / in focus group research. There’s a joke there, but not a personality, and that shows.
Animaniacs is at heart a variety show—which I didn’t fully appreciate until the reboot brought with it a stunning lack of variety. The three-act cartoon format always was pleasantly modular, allowing the show’s creators to put together an episode from the palette of many different recurring characters. I liked Slappy Squirrel, felt largely indifferent to the Goodfeathers, and actively disliked Rita and Runt, Elmyra, and Mindy and Buttons (poor Buttons!)—but their presence was, I think, necessary in a way. I hope that season 2 broadens the show’s scope, the same way season 1 broadens the Warners’.
“This is a kids’ show!”
Animaniacs has always been loaded with double entendre and grown-up-friendly humor. That’s true twice over for the remake, which is counting on its original audience to have returned as the adults in the room. (*raises hand* present.) But as Yakko, Wakko, or Dot tend to reminds us after every sly wink at standards and practices, Animaniacs is, in theory, children’s programming. My opinion, therefore, is only half of what matters. Do actual children, who were not alive in the 1990s, enjoy the show?
Well, my kids do, at any rate. My second-grader seems to have found a kindred soul in Pinky, and I half expect her to start saying “narf!” around the house. And we do, indeed, laugh in completely different places, as the cartoon gods intended. For example, I cackled when a sports announcer said, “High jump: now legal in 12 states!” and she laughed when the character attempting the jump face-planted ingloriously. A perfect division of cartoon labor.
That said, your modern kid is also quite likely to have a YouTube-sized attention span. The traditional-length show segments all felt slightly too long for her, especially when they got mired down in stories and jokes she doesn’t quite understand. There is a dearth of catchy, two-minute song segments for which Animaniacs became famous in the first place—which is a pity, because I think she would both enjoy them and learn from them. (As, for that matter, would I.)
A victim of the binge
Which leads to the real feeling I took away from the show. In the end, you have to take Animaniacs for what it is: an artifact of the 1990s, trying to find its way in a world where we might by now be immune to zany thanks to incessant daily exposure. And the most important feature of broadcast programming in the 1990s was: you couldn’t binge it. You had to watch new episodes when they were delivered to you.
Animaniacs is not a great show to binge-watch, but it has the seeds of a great show in it. Go into the reboot with the spirit of the original, then, and take the episodes one or two at a time. They’ll seem better for it, and you’ll get to spread the laughs out longer.