By Talya Stehley, Staff Writer
I hadn’t been particularly excited for the recently released reboot of “Animaniacs”. In its original form, “Animaniacs” aired 99 episodes between 1993 and 1998 The cartoon’s main characters are the Warner Brothers, Wakko and Yakko, as well as their sister Dot, a reference to the Warner Brothers animations studio that produced the show. In-universe, Wakko, Yakko and Dot are cartoon characters who have been locked away since their creation during the golden age of theatrical animation in the 1930s, only to escape to cause generalized mischief. The show’s premise is flexible. While many episodes feature the Warner siblings bothering people at the Warner Brothers movie studio, just as many place them in some other place and time, often parodying some aspect of pop culture. Sometimes there are educational songs, you may have seen “The Nations of the World”, which is popular and frequently remixed on YouTube. “Animaniacs” was a variety show. In addition to the Warners, every episode contained other shorts from a wide cast of characters that were more-or-less self-contained. “Pinky and The Brain”, a recurring segment about two lab rats trying to take over the world, was well-liked enough to get its own spin-off series in 1995. I was always partial to “Chicken Boo”, which was about a giant chicken trying to live among humans, whose goals were inevitably thwarted once the people around him realized he wasn’t a man, but a chicken. The original “Animaniacs” was a show that threw a lot of spaghetti at the wall, and while not all of it stuck, it was often very funny.
Which brings us back to the topic of the recent reboot. The original “Animaniacs” ran for a decent amount of time. This wasn’t an “Invader Zim” or “Clone High” situation where a series was cancelled prematurely and later developed a cult following. To me at least, a reboot didn’t feel necessary. In the first episode, the Warners sing a whole song about how reboots and remakes exist just to make money. It’s mildly amusing, but my initial impression of the show was that it had crossed the line from being self-aware to being overly self-conscious, to its own detriment. The characters also note that the show was actually written back in 2018, which is unfortunate for a show so reliant on pop-culture references, released in a year when a lot of things changed. This only contributes to the overall sense of irrelevance.
And yet, despite my initial negative impression, I did watch the show through to the end. The bit that finally won me over happened in the third episode, during a sketch based around the Olympic Games. Despite the fact that the sketch isn’t as topical as it was supposed to be, it has some genuine laughs, and some great visual gags. I’m not so cynical that I can watch a cartoon character win a game of table tennis by eating all the balls instead of hitting them and not laugh. And once I reached that point, I started to genuinely enjoy the new season of “Animaniacs”.
“Pinky and The Brain” is also back, with new, vaguely vaporwave visuals to go along with that classic theme song. One standout episode involves Brain breaking into the NSA, to get a favor from Edward Snowden. I guess the writers figured that since Snowden can’t come back to the U.S. without being arrested for treason, they can depict him making out with a houseplant with impunity. On the other hand, another “Pinky and the Brain” segment is downright nasty towards non-exiled late-night TV host Seth Myers, so who knows. The episode where Brain built a robot to be his equal in intelligence is something of a retread of the episode from the original series where he made Pinky as smart as he was, but was enjoyable nonetheless. Because “Pinky and the Brain” is more plot-driven than the main “Animaniacs” segments, it’s less susceptible to the sense that it’s struggling for relevance. Regardless of what’s going on in the world, the Brain wants power and Pinky helps him in his own bumbling fashion.
The original “Animaniacs” was a variety show, featuring a number of different recurring segments, but “Animaniacs” 2020 pares down the cast significantly, with only the Animaniacs themselves and Pinky and the Brain being carried over from the original show. Two new segments are introduced, each occurring only once. “Starbox and Cindy” is forgettable, about an alien that a little girl has mistaken for a toy. The other is episode 9’s delightfully absurd “The Incredible Gnome In People’s Mouths”, which had me laughing from start to finish. It comes out of nowhere, has its own artstyle and unnecessarily detailed premise, and may be my favorite part of the whole series. Though the show eliminates some clutter by doing so, cutting so many of the old segments makes the show’s structure feel slightly odd. Most episodes follow the format: Warner siblings segment, “Pinky and the Brain”, another Warner segment. Other segments are few and far between, meaning the end product doesn’t feel like a true variety show. Instead we have two different cartoons stapled together, for reasons that don’t quite make sense anymore. In a way the show’s structure is emblematic of its larger problem, that it’s uncomfortable with what it used to be, yet unwilling to move significantly forward. Which is a shame. When the show is willing to experiment, for example the aforementioned “The Incredible Gnome In People’s Mouths” it shows potential, but too often it gets caught up in its own self-loathing.
While I enjoyed the 2020 reboot of “Animaniacs”, it’s hard to deny that it’s something of a mixed bag. The animation is high-quality, and nicely styled. It’s always cool when the style changes for the sake of a joke. There’s a parody of action anime that’s unironically really cool looking. It’s jokes are often funny, but also often cringe-inducing, and overall it could have benefitted from more variety in segments.