I’d much prefer to visit any other place than Easttown.
“Quantum mechanics. Quinoa wraps. Queen Bey. We’ve missed so much!”
So says the newly revived/rebooted/resurrected Yakko Warner in the opening minutes of the new, Hulu-based version of Animaniacs. And indeed, he and his siblings, Wakko and Dot, do indeed have a lot to catch up on. A lot has happened since 1998, when we last saw an original Animaniacs episode. But the Warner brothers (and Warner sister) are still as sly, self-aware and utterly insane as ever.
For those who need a refresher on Animaniacs history, it’s this: In 1993, Steven Spielberg—yes, that one—decided the world needed more cartoon chaos than could be supplied by decades-old Looney Tunes. It needed some new cartoon characters masquerading as old cartoon characters (the Warners, in the show’s continuum, were allegedly born/drawn in 1930). They lived in the water tower on the Warner Bros. backlot, frequently breaking free to sing, dance, eat and make life rather miserable for the lot’s security guard, Ralph.
But they’re hardly bound to the studio. Indeed, you’d be liable to see them in space or in China, living 3,000 years ago or in the far distant future. Plot? They don’t need no stinkin’ plot!
They were joined (virtually speaking) on each half-hour episode by Pinky and the Brain, who had an even simpler reason for being—neatly illustrated by two lines of dialogue featured in most every episode.
Pinky: Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?
Brain: The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world!
It was all very silly and, for a while, successful. The characters’ zany antics paired with sly, topical humor brought in kids and adults alike. But that, ultimately, was the show’s undoing: In its last two years on WB Kids, the show was drawing far more adults than children, which made the show’s toy-and-sugary-breakfast-cereal sponsors unhappy.
Dot, Yakko and Wakko were, officially, deado.
But in this age of reboots, nothing stays dead for long if it has any prayer of attracting an audience—as the reliably subversive Animaniacs themselves tell us. Indeed, at the end of the inaugural episode, Hulu hands the Warner trio (wearing Hulu-branded clothes) a gigantic piece of cardboard bearing a dollar sign followed by about nine or so figures.
“Here’s your check for the Animaniacs reboot, you sellouts!” someone hollers off screen.
And … we’re off and running.
Like the original, this version of Animaniacs pitches itself as much toward adults as it does kids. So while the show carries itself with the same wacky charm as classic Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck shorts, it’s more topical, more self-aware and, in a way, more problematic.
This is not to say that all of these elements (including the problems) were absent from the classic cartoons of yesteryear. But Animaniacs wants to be aggressively contemporary, and that means ratcheting up all of the above. We’ll hear and see plenty of jokes revolving around the state of the culture, from toxic social media to climate change to a certain orange-haired, orange-faced politician. Even in the show’s opening theme song, the Warners gleefully point out that they’re “gender balanced, pronoun neutral and laughably diverse,” both bowing to and ribbing today’s cultural mores.
The humor can be slightly risqué, too. Characters can make oblique verbal references to sex and nudity (most of which will easily sail past the notice of younger viewers) just before engaging in more kid-centric gags. Odd, joking references to religion can crop up. And, like its cartoon forebears, the Animaniacs can be wildly violent. Perhaps the show’s humor can best be summed up in an early episode, in which Dot campaigns for both cartoons’ right to vote and for congress to enact legislation requiring stunt doubles for “all that cartoon violence.”
“It’s time to take our anvils back!” She declares.
What I’m saying is, this isn’t Care Bears—nor is it intended to be. But it’s far cleaner and more kid-friendly than much of the explicitly adult animated fare populating the networks, cable and streaming services these days. And for those who can navigate its excesses, Animaniacs might be something that parents and kids could enjoy watching together—something as rare on television today as a successful world-conquering plot from the Brain.
These shorts, in shorts, are a quintessential reboot—looking laughably, even disturbingly similar to the old show. But even as Yakko, Wakko and Dot lament their own reboot as a sign of a Hollywood “out of ideas,” longtime fans—and newer ones, too—probably won’t mind so much.
The Warner siblings return: They do so first in a reimagined version of creator Steven Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park (“this species of cartoon has been extinct since 1998!” exclaims a Laura Dern doppelganger), and then in a return to the Warner Bros. backlot. Meanwhile, the Brain tries to take over the world by becoming “the internet’s cutest and silliest animal,” thus brainwashing the populace.
When Brain tells Pinky that they must give the people what they want, Pinky strips off his bathrobe, telling Brain that he’ll “only do it if it makes sense for my character.” And when Brain rhetorically asks Pinky what people use the internet for, Pinky says, “I do, but I don’t think I can say it.” (In case it gets lost in translation, these are references to entertainment nudity and porn, respectively.)
Brain gets caught in a spinning globe and gets repeatedly thwacked by the Himalayas. Several characters get hit with sledgehammers. Wakko eats a 22-year-old sandwich. Pinky says that he spent most of his time in the past enabling Brain’s “systematic emotional and physical abuse,” but he quickly slips into the same pattern.
A cartoon character vomits money. We see Looney Tunes zombies. Bea Arthur is resurrected. We hear references to global warming, caustic social media and a myriad of past and present politicians.
In the first segment, Yakko, Wakko and Dot are Greek gods on vacation who torment a jerkish version of Odysseus. In the second, Pinky and the Brain try to take over a medieval kingdom with the help of a thespian dragon. In the third (marking the 100th anniversary of a woman’s right to vote in the U.S.), Dot spearheads a voters’ rights drive for cartoons.
Yakko strikes a graffiti artist with lightning from on high on Mount Olympus. “All this smiting is causing me carpal tunnel,” one of the Warner siblings gripes, so they visit an otherwise deserted island, where Dot showers Wakko with “resonating crystals.”
A shirtless Odysseus (with lots of body hair) and his mostly shirtless crew splash water on the vacationing gods. They send him to Hades, where he (and we) see a bevy of classical punishments and “forgotten souls”. Later, they send Odysseus to an island ruled by colossal orange cyclops—clearly meant to be a caricature of a former reality star/president—who says his island is “literally the finest island in the world.” He also brags about his “two excellent eyes” while rubbing Odysseus underneath one of his orange nipples. (Later, Dot says that the cyclops was given demigod status, “or was it demagogue?”)
Elsewhere, cartoon characters petition the government for stunt doubles to avoid cartoon violence. The Brain encourages a dragon to act like he’s a threatening beast, thus fooling the local king to hand over his kingdom to Brain if Brain manages to “kill” the dragon. In training, the dragon ignites the surrounding forest and later smashes a castle. Other characters are subject to a variety of painful-looking smashes and falls. Someone says that when he heard a group of minstrels singing, “he only thing I felt was my ears vomiting.”
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
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