Most people my age fondly remember “Saturday Morning Cartoons” as being the somewhat golden era of animation, even though by most internet historians and fifty-something single nerds still living at home, that era belonged to Disney circa the 1970s to 1990s. Still, when it came to small-screen, cheaply-animated shows, Disney had a firm command on that until Warner Brothers asked film superstar Steven Spielberg to make an animated film for them. This ended up being a number of television series, beginning with Tiny Toon Adventures, followed by Animaniacs.
Animaniacs is often described as a variety show or a sketch comedy by most, as unlike most cartoons which have characters doing things, the trio are featured in various sketches lampooning popular culture, political satire, or other meta-commentary. There were also other segments featuring other characters doing more isolated stories or bits, such as Pinky and the Brain, Goodfeathers, Chicken Boo, and others. A lot of Animaniacs’ cult appeal came from many of its one-off sketches or segments that kids-now-adults remember fondly, such as Yakko’s Nations of the World.
Having concluded in 1998, the Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister) were not seen on the air in any capacity at all until now. That’s twenty-two years, and since we’re counting, Animaniacs is getting a goddamn reboot before my beloved Nadesico. Hey, XEBEC, get on with it!
I could probably spend an enormously long time iterating over then-and-now of this show. Animaniacs was a show I thoroughly enjoyed as a kid, and when Netflix added it in 2016 I rewatched quite a bit of it. Only, it did not age as well as it could of, or should of. Apart from some hilarious one-offs, like Randy Beeman’s Mom sketches, Chicken Boo, and Anvilania, when your show relies on current-period popular culture, the only people who can really digest that are those who lived in that time period. Not all of their sketches did that then, but a lot of their sketches in this first season reboot do. Particularly, they really leaned heavily into politics, riffing several times on the fact Donald Trump is the president, Brain exploring what would happen if he combined several first ladies personalities into one mouse, mocking third-parties, taking on Russian disinformation, and more. Some of this is good, others seemed to fall exclusively on the viewer to suss out, including a bit in the opening episode’s Pinky and the Brain sketch where parody Seth Meyers’ blonde wig joke is followed by “You’ll get it… I’ll wait…”
A lot of this is attributed to the fact that the show’s original creator and producer, Tom Ruegger, was not involved at all in the reboot, along with much of the original production staff. Instead, the showrunners are Wellesley Wild (of Family Guy), Gabe Swarr, and Tom Minton. Spielberg retains his title of executive producer, and it was he who insisted on retaining the original voice cast and music production. Yet it seems like they intentionally left Ruegger out of his own show, and I could not find a follow-up article as to why. My only immediate guess is that it either has to do with money, or rights, and the latter might be why most of the show’s extra characters didn’t make it into the reboot, save for cameos in one episode that did feature an old extra.
I believe Wild when he says he does not want to alter the format of a show like Animaniacs, but in almost every review I read from the outlets I trust aren’t stocked with pious blowhards mad online they aren’t political journalists, seem to agree that the sketches, while funny, lack the wit that Ruegger and Co. spun the show with twenty-two years ago.(Click-to-expand Optional Bullshit: Gender-Balanced-Pronoun-Neutral-and-Ethically-Diverse
The most obvious reason internet trolls will point to for this reboot feeling slightly off-center, is progressivism. And since politics is a part of everything now, as it was then, we’re going to address it head-on; It makes sense that the showrunners and writers creating television today are going to be steeped in the current culture norms, while acknowledging previous cultural norms, and often rejecting them. HELLO NURSE is obviously one example of a phrase and character, while iconic to the original, was sidestepped in the reboot. I imagine that the decision to bring in a fresher crew to showrun and write speaks to that cadence of wanting to appeal not only to newer audiences, but to the parents who watched this show as a kid, enjoyed it, but did not like some of the references as they cued its time.
I am not bothered by the show taking shots at trolls, or choosing not to renew dated cultural references. What bothers me about any reboot or current-day show, is when showrunners and writers intentionally shoehorn things specifically to inflame and harass trolls, or pander to the progressive stack in an entirely unnatural way related to the source material. Fortunately, Animaniacs has always been good at firing right down the center, never afraid to singe anyone that happens to be in the way. As the new opening alludes to, they were the trolls before internet trolls existed, and that is something unique to them and many other sketch comedies like Saturday Night Live.
What weakens the Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister) from probably being as effective now as they were twenty-two years ago is time. In all that time, animation has greatly matured both in medium complexity, and subject matter. Adult animation was not a genre in 1998, and even the shows we might consider adult now, like King of the Hill, wouldn’t really get those accolades until the advent of streaming, where most older shows got their second-wind among audiences who were kids when they aired, and gave them serious consideration as adults. But beyond that, you also have more recent shows like Bojack Horseman, The Boondocks, Robot Chicken, and others that explored not only current events, but personal events, mental health, and more. There is most certainly a space for Animaniacs to come back and fill, and even do better what a lot of live sketch comedy won’t touch anymore so as not to offend anyone, but it requires a deft hand, and I don’t know if that is Wild, or even Spielberg.
Like the original, most of the animation was farmed out to domestic and international companies, notably Tokyo Movie Shinsha, which they based the reboot character design on as it was more consistent than others. One of the farm studios on the reboot was also Titmouse, responsible for Star Trek: Lower Decks, and many Adult Swim shows in recent years. It looks good in modern wide-screen, but some parts still look jagged or mismatched. I think the only reason this bothers me is because a lot of good shows produced in the 2000s, despite using Flash, did not have to rely on outsourcing. A company like Warner Brothers, and a director like Spielberg, should really be able to work this show out in-house like Walt Disney Animation Studio. I think if you really wanted to make a real impact on bringing back an ironic show, you’d really put some skin in the game.
The one segment that outperformed itself in the reboot were the new Pinky and the Brain segments. The format has not really changed since inception, but then it doesn’t have to. It’s always Brain coming up with a foolproof plan, Pinky fucking up the foolproof plan, and then doing the same thing next episode. But even some of the episode stories were good. A hunt for a dragon that had Pinky shouting LEEEEROOY JENKINSSSS (which I can only assume Rob Paulsen leaned into that one on his own). Looking for Edward Snowden’s help to break into the NSA, again. Creating an ideal conservative first-lady for Brain to be president, only to have her win his senate bid. Inventing an electric car that would trap the driver in and keep driving only to trap themselves in it. It seems like the production staff are deliberately letting Animaniacs take a dive to convince Hulu just to pick up a reboot of Pinky and the Brain instead. They even opened the first episode with a flashback on how the old Acme Labs building looked:Click-to-expand Optional Bullshit: Gender-Balanced-Pronoun-Neutral-and-Ethically-Diverse-Again
As I began writing more for this on a second night, I read another one of the negative reviews to this show, but this one got real specific as to why they thought it was bad:
The opening crack about how wild and funny it is that bathrooms have gender-neutral signs is only the tip of the iceberg of this strangely conservative-leaning shift in comic voice. “Woke jokes” run rampant, with trite and hackneyed observations about current-day hipsters and how sensitive they are. The scripts stare at our modern world with a head on a swivel, eager to poke at every single aspect (especially if it involves a modicum of progressivism, but also if it involves joked-to-death topics like Russian trolls and Trumpism) and call it dumb.GREGORY LAWRENCE – Collider
Basically, they were upset the show took a more good people on both sides approach instead of spending thirteen episodes dunking on the orange man. Frankly, they got their licks in pretty well, more than I needed, but I feel one of the best ways a 1990s reboot can comment on today’s sketch comedy atmosphere is to correctly point out that you’re a little bitch comma deal with it. Because the comedy space has been so extremely sanitized, before and after COVID, it’s now expected of any franchise with considerable pull to weigh in on sociopolitical topics, and for the correct side. The reason you’re sour about the reboot because it comes out at the end of one of the most tumultuous presidencies in modern times versus when the original aired during every millennial’s wet dream administration (that they never correctly remember due to being children) also coincidentally featured in the show’s opening, playing the sax.
And ultimately, we’re doing the thing I don’t want to do when I talk about TV or anime here. This isn’t a place for politics. It’s not to say politics does not exist in our media and permeates our lives, but it’s not something that you should seek to let live in your head rent-free. You can disconnect from the real world for twenty-two minutes at a time to enjoy something irreverent and funny about the world around us. That’s usually what comedy is.
Taken as a whole, complete package, the reboot season is adequate. It does retain most of the core look and feel of the Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister) and parts that made each segment feel like an old episode. How could they have done better? Well besides not bringing in anyone involved with Family Guy because that show is actual garbage and you should be watching American Dad being the only good Seth MacFarlene show out there, I would focus less on the politics and the culture wars and more on the kind of things that happen to people today. Yakko encountering a tablet for the first time and literally swallowing it like a tablet was a really clever joke, but it could have really expanded its way out. The internet was still in its extreme infancy when Animaniacs ended in 1998, now it dominates out entire lives. Do a sketch on people walking around with their heads in their phones while dropping anvils on them. Have them get really excited to go to a mega-mall only to find it abandoned because everyone buys from Amazon now. Have them trapped in a VR game being played by Scratchnsniff. Some of these reviewers were right that they overplayed the same undertones for so many episodes that it just wasn’t good. And frankly, if I wanted that level of mediocrity, I’d just pull up any episode of Saturday Night Live since Bobby Moynihan and Leslie Jones left the show.
But, the real silver lining for you anime fans, is that they did acknowledge the fact they missed out on two decades of weeb shit, and delivered this:
I probably enjoyed this sketch the most, because as aforementioned, Animaniacs is at its best when it’s riffing on popular culture in wacky ways. I’d almost love to see Studio Trigger or GAINAX animate an Animaniacs short in this same vain just for comedic effect.
TL;DR: If you watched the 1993 series, definitely give this a watch. It’s decent. If you have never seen the 1993 series, watch it first, then watch this. I normally don’t give a shit about reboot-to-original order, but in this case, I think the original stands up better and provides more context. Plus, the original, and all of Pinky and the Brain’s standalone show are on Hulu, so take advantage of Spielberg cashing out again on his old portfolio.