The year was 1993. At this time, George H. W. Bush was out of the White House, and Bill Clinton was in. Robin Williams had proved there was still humor in cross-dressing, Fruitopia and colored popcorn were still popular, and Mortal Kombat was stirring up controversy in the video gaming world. At this time, the guys at Warner Brothers had given us another cartoon series that was aiming to recapture the feel of the classic WB Looney Tunes shorts...but the result was something that likely got more attention than it deserved. This series is known as...
Released in 1993 by Warner Brothers, "Animaniacs" came after "Tiny Toon Adventures" and "Batman: the Animated Series" and before "Histeria!" and "Road Rovers". It received a strong set of ratings and managed to win eight Daytime Emmy Awards and one Peabody Award. Even today, it seems to enjoy attention from an ardent fanbase. I however, think this show...is more than just a little overrated. Now, I happen to love animation. I like a good joke as much as the next guy. I'm not a prude, I'm not heartless, and I'm not a guy who "loves the '80s, hates the '90s". I happened to be a kid who, upon seeing it for myself, would tune in to "Animaniacs" with my siblings all the time after school. But looking at this show from an adult viewpoint, this article will basically help express my feelings that while "Animaniacs" is worthwhile, I feel it likely gets more credit than it probably deserves.
The series never had much of a strong plot; usually it involves a small idea that they use to introduce a series of jokes. The series' main stars were the Warners, Yakko, Wakko and Dot. They are not any species of animal; just some 'inkblot' characters typical from the 1930s. The idea is they were originally a trio of WB cartoon characters whose antics were so zany and madcap they were out of control. Because their cartoons made no sense, they were locked away in the WB water tower never to be heard from again--until they had escaped, present day. At the same time, there were a whole of other skits involved in the show, not related to that main story.
While like many other cartoons Warner Brothers releases, "Animaniacs" uses slapstick comedy to entertain kids, and double entendres/movie references to entertain mature audiences. Part of the problem that I seem to have is within the series, the two extremes don't seem to mesh together so well. A lot of the references to mature topics/events/cinema would fly right over a young child's head, and the constant barrage of slapstick would prove to wear on a mature viewer, leaving them to think "Animaniacs" is not as smart or as funny as is it may like to think it is.
Another element that I seemed to notice was while "Tiny Toon Adventures" here and there had a "preachy" moment, one thing that I liked about it was the fact that while they did a lot of 'satirizing', they still had room for an occassional moment of warmth--it meant that someone was thinking a little bit of sincerity (just a sign that they care, not outright mushiness) between the characters helps make it all the more worth your while, and helps it age better despite having been made during the early '90s, when 'attitude is everything'. You don't get a strong sense of warmth in "Animaniacs"--sure, they want to stay together and such, but many times the string of annoyances that they seem to enjoy towards whomever the characters are agonizing makes any warmth seem like something of an afterthought. When it does try to establish warmth, it seems awful saccharine. You could say the point is moot, considering 'warmth' and 'satire' don't always come rolling off your tongue in the same sentence, but given that "Tiny Toon Adventures" managed to do just that, something was lost in the shuffle of this new show.
Another thing that I did not enjoy was the extremely uneven quality of the series' skits. Here's a rundown:
The series' best skit was the cult favorite "Pinky and the Brain". This skit had a major running plot; it was always about a pair of lab mice, one a genius and the other isn't that bright, constantly plotting to take over the world. The Brain would always have a different, elaborate plot for world domination, and Pinky doesn't understand or know why. Despite being cast in a rather 'villainous' role, the Brain seems to be aspiring for divinity despite having odds stacked against him, and Brain would eventually establish that he cares about Pinky, even if he would...inadvertently or sometimes directly...foil Brain's plot. The Orson Welles-vibe one gets from Brain is a funny touch; together with Pinky's general scatterbrained nature made this skit a success. This part of "Animaniacs" was so successful the two lab mice eventually got their own name-retaining spin-off series, which is probably what it needed to realize its potential.
The close second-best was "Slappy Squirrel". This sketch had a 'comedy duo' element with a 'generation gap' theme. Basically, think a young-and-old 'Odd Couple'. Slappy Squirrel is a cranky, retired Looney Tunes actress from the Termite Terrace days, and Skippy is her boundlessly energetic nephew, remaining faithful to the 'cartoon characters never being able to have their own children' theme. Slappy was always bitter and sarcastic and had a lot of quick wit while Skippy was cheery and liked to see the good in things. They would always do trade-offs; Skippy wants Slappy to be fun, while Slappy tries to teach Skippy about the nature/intent of comedy. This was another skit which was a success; however, unlike "Pinky and the Brain", Slappy never spun off.
The only other worthwhile skit was the main sketch involving the Warners. These three were 'inkblot' characters (think Bosko and Honey) who had finally escaped the confines of the WB water tower and now are free to wreck havoc, while the WB CEO Thaddeus Plotz assigns studio shrink Dr. Scratchnsniff, bombshell Hello Nurse and not-too-bright Ralph the Security Guard to control them. For the most part, they would annoy someone that they would think is being too strict, rude or unfair until they suffer a nervous breakdown. While I don't know if this skit screamed "classic", it was the third best skit probably because it was the only other skit that worked. They probably should be happy that Slappy never got her own show or "Animaniacs" would have sunk like a rock.
This is where the series would stumble most: the fact the rest of the skits are not anywhere near as successful. They're not flat-out duds, as they can be funny, but aren't in the same camp as the previous three.
"The Goodfeathers" is a pigeon-styled spoof on the movie "The Godfather", where three pigeons--Bobby, Squit and Pesto--would constantly strive to be the best in anything they did. This is ultimately an uneven skit--when it works, it works, when it doesn't, it doesn't. Another thing about it is...do we REALLY need yet another spoof of the mafia? I mean, hasn't organized crime been satirized to the point of being overspoofed? The pigeon twist doesn't make it a whole lot different, and if I never saw another joke on the mafia, I'd be fine.
"Minerva Mink" is a skit which starred a very feminine seductress/siren/furry chick with the voice of Julie Brown who, while on the prowl for a perfect boyfriend, also doubles as a lust target. Probably intended to imitate the essence of the cartoons that Tex Avery was known for, I understand there is a cult surrounding Minerva and I thought the skit itself was fine, but...I think calling this a full-fledged "skit" is really stretching it. Of all the "Animaniacs" sketches, the cartoons that directly starred Minerva numbered only two cartoons--"Meet Minerva" and "Moon Over Minerva"--which outside the ensemble parts, is all she did. To its credit though, the guys at the WB couldn't make full use of her. The cartoons that starred her made heavy use of sex humor, which in a slapstick comedy series for children (one wonders what would have happened if the guys at Time Warner saved this idea for when Cartoon Network's Adult Swim hit. Hmm...)...not exactly a match made in Heaven. In addition, she's shallow, self-absorbed and vain--probably also considered a bad role model for the little girls watching.
My thoughts on Minerva? Well...like Lola Bunny, she's nice-looking and stuff, but I was never crazy for her. I know, I know. Call me stupid, call me crazy, crazy me a homo, but I wasn't lusting after Minerva's every frame like some of her other fans. If her skit wasn't so 'mature', she probably would've gotten more, but as it is it just doesn't fit in with the rest of the series.
I'm more of a Fifi fanboy myself... :)
"Chicken Boo" is a sketch that involves a giant chicken that wears a disguise to look like a man but is eventually unmasked. It is funny and the comedy works, but...I don't know if this is really a 'skit' so much as it is a big glorified running joke.
"Buttons and Mindy" is something that I know viewers couldn't wait to be over. The cartoon was about a mom that lets her baby girl play outside and wants the dog to watch her, while telling him not to touch something. Then something that perks the girl's interest and goes after it, while her dog is trying his hardest to ensure she is not hurt, and it ends where the mom is clueless of her daughter's adventure, but Buttons gets in trouble for accidently sabotaging what he was not supposed to touch. Much like the old cartoons with Popeye and Swee'Pea, but not anywhere as successful. It's only cosmetically different from cartoon to cartoon--and it immediately becomes formulaic and repetitive. I would have a hard time finding anyone who liked this skit in the long run.
"Rita and Runt" is another failed sketch. It's about a streetwise queen cat and a slow-witted, benign dog who had become strays and search for a home or at least some food. This sketch is known for its use of singing. Rita has a singing voice which is done by Bernadette Peters who has a nice voice, I can attest. I can draw the similarities to John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" so often used for comedy in the old Looney Tunes cartoons, but still, I didn't like this one too much. It's not especially funny and the constant singing, almost like they didn't know what else to do, doesn't make it any better.
"Katie Kaboom"--no explanation is required, but here goes. It's about a teenage girl who, upon being angered/annoyed/irritated/something doesn't go her way becomes a vicious monster that her family must attempt to defuse. Free of comedy as it is of depth and variety.
"The Hip Hippos" is a sketch that probably all fans will dub "sucks". It is about two immense, pampered, endangered hippos who live the luxury life while a zoologist would try to lure them away from danger--usually to her own detriment. This part of the show was anything but funny.
Then there some 'quick fillers' like "Dot's Poetry Corner", "Good Idea/Bad Ideas" and musical numbers on a certain topic. Examples include the Presidents of the U.S., the U.S. State captials, the planets in our solar system, all the nations of the world...and so forth. I never cared for the first one, the "Good Idea/Bad Ideas" are funny but probably shouldn't be considered one of the series' absolute highlights, and the songs? Well, the music is very well-written, and something I would want to listen to again and again, but in a time when I can buy a song for only a dollar, buying just the song for only a buck that I can burn onto a CD and put in my car will suffice. So, why should I want to shell out $40-$50 for the series in a complete comprehensive boxset just for two or three creative songs? That's...kind of a waste of money.
Now, I don't hate "Animaniacs". It is funny, it is smart, the animation is nice, generally it is a nice show to tune in to, but...with all the praise that it gets, shouldn't the sketches that it has hit much more often? Whenever I hear someone praising this show, usually the praise goes to Pinky and the Brain, Slappy or the Warners. Sometimes praise goes to the quick fillers, or it's "I want more Minerva" (moral or immoral reasons notwithstanding). They never have the same praise for any of the others. Shouldn't fans, well, praise more than just three of the numerous sketches? Put one of the first three in a "Best of" DVD next to a "Best of" DVD with "Chicken Boo", "Buttons and Mindy" or "Rita and Runt" and I would expect to see the former three sold out, while the latter three probably wouldn't sell at 75% off.
The series itself began on Fox Kids Network in 1993, then left for the "Kids' WB!" lineup in 1995, and ended its run in 1998 with a total of 99 half-hour episodes, one episode short of 100 episodes. The series ended with a DTV-movie titled "Animaniacs: Wakko's Wish" which was released in 1999 (I don't classify it an 'episode' because the point is it's supposed to be a movie). The film itself involves the entire Animaniacs cast in something of a fairy tale like story. A cruel, greedy king of a town called Acme Falls is taxing the hell out of everyone, and all the while, the Warners are cast to be orphans who live on the streets. Dot has become ill and her brothers can't afford to cure her illness, so Wakko wishes upon a star to help her. When the wishing star falls to Earth, the entire cast goes off in an "Amazing Race"-style story to get to the wishing star and have their wish granted. As a series finale...it is pretty disappointing. The most prominent flaw is the story--the characters are now slave to a story that ultimately means they 'just can't truly be themselves'. Its songs also aren't the most inspired, and it ultimately leaves viewers wishing something else like a sequel would come, but so far, nothing. Cartoon Network airs it quite often (more than the actual series and usually around Christmas, although the holiday is not relevant to the movie). In the end, "Wakko's Wish" will please the young kids, but everyone else will come away feeling empty. Hell, I never heard anyone claim they didn't like "Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation", that movie was really nice. But this is one big letdown.
The show, together with "Tiny Toon Adventures", continued to run in syndication during the late 1990s on Cartoon Network from 1997 until 2001, when Nickelodeon bought the rights to run these series. However, you basically don't see it on TV anymore.
To go along with the series, DC Comics published an "Animaniacs" comic book that began in May 1995. It had basically the same feel as the series, with the same sketches and humor. Also in line with the series, "Pinky and the Brain" eventually departed (for the most part) to launch their own comic in July 1996. Unlike the show, the "Pinky and the Brain" comic lasted 27 issues before it was cancelled in November 1998 and remerged which the main "Animaniacs" comic. The "Animaniacs" comic book ran until April 2000, when DC Comics wanted to introduce a "Powerpuff Girls" comic book, and had a total of 59 issues. I can't really say how, but the comic book falls a little flat. It kinda loses something during the translation from animation to comic books. The comic finale is nothing to home about either...just slightly less so than "Wakko's Wish".
But these finales are outright fine compared to what eventually happened to "Pinky and the Brain". It began in 1995 and ended in 1998, with a total of 65 episodes. However, in what proved to be a really bone-headed move, Warner Brothers wanted to put Pinky and the Brain in a sitcom-like setting, "just like The Simpsons". So, in a studio-dictated decision, Kids' WB gave us the sequel series "Pinky, Elmyra and the Brain". The plot involved Pinky and the Brain losing Acme Labs in one of Brain's experiments, and through a pet adoption, they wound up with Elmyra, a character from "Tiny Toon Adventures". The show lost its intelligence, it got incredibly shrill and annoying, no other "Tiny Toons" or "Animaniacs" characters were involved (could be a good thing or a bad thing), and hate was even established through the series' intro. The series only ran for 13 episodes, but only 5 of which actually aired. The remaining 8 episodes were not seen until Kids' WB made the "Cat&Birdy Warneroonie PinkyBrainy Big Cartoonie Show" where it was seen together with "Tiny Toon Adventures", "Animaniacs", "The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries" and "Pinky and the Brain". It continued during the "Cat&Bunny Warneroonie SuperLooney Big Cartoonie Show" (now with Looney Tunes) and was gone with the block's cancellation in 2000 (final time these shows were on Kids' WB!), but the only lasting impact this series will have is in "What were they thinking?" discussions.
Take Brain's advice from the series' intro: "I deeply resent this."
And there you have it; my thoughts on "Animaniacs". It has a nice level of humor and cheeriness to brighten up your day, but what stops me from fully praising this show is the total uneven quality of the sketches. I don't boycott "Animaniacs", but what I'll say is: I will watch it should it come on TV, but I don't have the need to own the series on DVD. Moral of the story: "Well, we don't always hit, but that's more than can be said for "The Wacky World of Tex Avery"."