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Animaniacs

Entry updated 30 November 2020. Tagged: TV.

1. US animated tv series (1993-1998; vt Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs). Amblin Entertainment, Warner Bros. Animation. Created by Tom Ruegger. Executive producer Steven Spielberg. Directors include Alfred Gimeno, Dave Marshall and Rusty Mills. Writers include Peter Hastings, Nicholas Hollander, Randy Rogel, Paul Rugg and Sherri Stoner. Voice cast includes Jess Harnell, Tress MacNeille, Rob Paulsen and Sherri Stoner. 99 21-minute episodes. Colour.

A sketch show mainly featuring anthropomorphized animals, the most prominent being three Warner Brothers' 1930s animation stars, their genus unclear: Yakko (Paulsen), Wakko (Harnell), and Dot (MacNeille) (aka "The Warner Brothers and their sister Dot"): considered too anarchic for public consumption, they were locked in the studio's iconic water tower and erased from the company's history. Sixty-five years later they escaped. Stories usually involve authority figures trying to impose themselves on the siblings, who react with shenanigans. Adventures include abduction by Aliens (with Alien (1979) referenced); going to hell; meeting Sherlock Holmes; a send-up of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (1993) (see Shōtarō Ishinomori); and Parodies of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Star Trek.

Entertaining though Yakko, Wakko and Dot are, the best segments featured a pair of lab mice who soon had their own eponymous series, Pinky & The Brain (1995-1998). The other standout was Slappy Squirrel (Stoner), an aged Looney Toons star, violent, cranky and disdainful of modern mores. It might be argued this was the show's wildest conceit, given the twentieth-century animation golden age's lack of female protagonists (see Feminism). Steeped in the Clichés of cartoons ("thank you Mr Exposition") and tactically blunt ("somebody get me a peen-ball hammer"), the show leaves the fourth wall in a constant state of disrepair: a brief cameo by Yakko, Wakko and Dot elicits her remark to camera "that was pointless". Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) is sent up. There are many explosions.

Other regular components with fantastic elements were Chicken Boo, a giant chicken who dresses as human and takes up many professions, where only one person – ignored by all – recognizes him as a fowl, others feting him until the scales fall from their eyes and Boo must flee; the Goodfeathers, three Mafioso pigeons; and The Hip Hippos, married rich hippopotami. Though the first has satirical touches about the recognition of talent in show business, these were largely unremarkable.

Animaniacs was a reaction to the then bland state of contemporary children's cartoons, the result of pressure from moral guardians – a situation that was Satirized in-show. It sought, with some success, to recapture the Humour and attitude of the Warner Bros. Cartoons, with a healthy dose of the Marx Brothers thrown in: there are wisecracks aplenty and much (cartoon) violence, plus occasional innuendo for the adults. The humour does not always target children, and sometimes not even their parents: one sketch's running gag that Milton Berle hated Yakko is presumably one for the grandparents. Much beloved, Animaniacs is an important chapter of animation history.

A subsequent film, Wakko's Wish (1999), though of merit, was released straight to video. Two further seasons were announced, the first being 2 below. [SP]

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2. US animated tv series (2020-current). Also known as Animaniacs 2020. Amblin Television, Warner Bros. Animation. Developed by Wellesley Wild and Steven Spielberg. Directors include Scott O'Brien, Katie Rice and Brett Varon. Writers include Andrew Barbot, Kathleen Chen, Lucas Crandles, Jess Lacher, Timothy Nash and Brian Polk. Voice cast as in 1 above. Thirteen 25- to 27-minute episodes, usually with three segments. Colour.

In this reboot of the 1993 series created by Tom Ruegger (see 1 above), most of the cast were dropped (save for cameos) to allow the show to focus on its most popular characters: the Warner Brothers and their sister Dot, and Pinky & The Brain. The former's sketches usually bookend the show, with the latter having the middle segment. There are occasional one-shot characters, such as the Incredible Gnome in People's Mouths.

The new theme song provides assurances regarding "Our brand new cast, who tested well in focus group research, gender balanced, pronoun-neutral and ethnically diverse". Stories include The Brain inviting Aliens to invade Earth, pointing out that its "dominant species [is] collectively unable to spell the word 'Mississippi'", and offering to facilitate and assist, in exchange for ruling the Earth in their stead. He gets a response, but the aliens prove more of Pinky's mindset than The Brain's, wanting to go to the Mall and do Karaoke. In another, the Warner siblings visit modern-day Russia, which resembles the West's Cold War portrayal of Soviet Russia as a place of scarcity, with a cult of personality (in this case, Putin).

There is much Satire, particularly of reboots and Politics. The former has much biting of the hand that feeds them; the latter's targets include President Trump and Russian involvement in US affairs. The Brain's remark, whilst disguised as a McCarthy era politician, that "lies are just facts that haven't been repeated enough yet", might have some pertinence to 2020. There are references to many films, including The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Jurassic Park (1993).

Not as outstanding as other recent animation reboots such as She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and DuckTales, this is still a reasonably good series although the sketches are hit-and-miss, sometimes overlong and with the Satire often unsubtle; there are nonetheless many funny scenes. The Warner siblings' segments are probably as strong as those of the original show; Pinky and The Brain's less so, mainly due to The Brain's wit being less inspired. A further season has been commissioned. [SP]

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