22 Years Later, Are They Still Zany to the Max?
While the “Animaniacs” reboot manages to create a series that builds on the comic stylings of the original, it is bogged down by outdated references and overstated self-deprecation.
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The original “Animaniacs” television series (1993-1998) has become something of an enigma. The show revolves around the three Warner siblings, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot, who spend their days running amok around the Warner Movie Studio Lot, wreaking havoc on unsuspecting security guards and balding child psychiatrists. The outlandish plot has equally esoteric characters to boot, with a cast ranging from a flock of stereotypically Italian pigeons to a crabby, anvil-toting squirrel.
Yet unlike most children’s television at the time, it hardly pandered to the lowest common denominator. Chock-full of colorful pop culture references, sly off-color remarks, and slapstick antics, the original “Animaniacs” allowed for a viewing experience that had as much appeal for adult viewers as it did for children.
Perhaps the greatest feature of the original is the rapid-fire sketch format that each episode falls into, splitting every weekly segment into multiple parts, with a completely different plot and set of characters for each. The variety show format jetts the viewer between several distinct animation techniques, genres, characters, and comedic-styles before the dreaded credits rolled.
Sadly, the original “Animaniacs” was canceled after a measly four seasons despite winning a slew of Daytime Emmys and gaining nearly universal critical acclaim. For 22 years, nobody heard a peep from the fever-dreamish Warner Siblings.
Enter the reboot––same general premise, same main characters, same cartoonish antics, all rocketed two decades into the future.
In “Animaniacs” (2020), this dynamic trio of siblings (self-described as “zany to the max”) is back. This television reboot is full of the same irreverence as its predecessor, but with a new audience, that irreverence needs to be adapted. The “Animaniacs” has always thrived on spoofing current events, but nowadays the turnaround time feels much faster. When shows in today’s streaming era take two or more years to produce, current events become a much riskier topic for jokes. “Animaniacs” finds its strength in timeless stories and classic parodies, like Episode 2’s Odysseus skit, wherein the usual comedic torture techniques of the Warners are ineffective because Odysseus sees their punishments as challenges. This particular story doesn’t rely on dated pop culture references and is thus still funny two years after it was written. That is, until its ending, which focuses on a Trump-like cyclops written in 2018, when peak Trump humor was “covfefe” and hand jokes. The already surface-level humor is further diluted with time, when their dead horse has been beaten down to gelatin. This episode is one of many that forces 2018-era political humor onto a jaded 2020 audience. This isn’t to say the jokes aren’t funny––they’re just outdated.
While a show as cutting-edge and satirical as the original “Animaniacs” is the antithesis of Hollywood reboot culture, they can’t help but join the fray. The 2020 show, however, can’t seem to let go of the fact that it’s a reboot. There are endless self-deprecating quips within each episode that the showrunners seem to believe redeem themselves of any “reboot scorn.” What they fail to understand is that there are very few viewers watching that are even marginally as frustrated by the concept of a reboot as they are. Songs, jokes, skits, and references are unceasingly dedicated to the subject and make it hard to enjoy the show as its own independent body of work, as we’re constantly being reminded that enjoying it is wrong.
Aside from the outdated humor (which isn’t really their fault, I mean, no one saw 2020 coming) and the insecure fixation on being a reboot, the humor of “Animaniacs” (2020) is still fresh. While some of the plots can be a little heavy-handed (bun control being a played out and generally nonsensical riff on gun control), the one-liners are still laugh-out-loud funny. Some of the funniest moments, though, are seen in shorts, inserted to fill the remaining time after the two main segments.
The quality of these shorts deserves praise, but they highlight another problem with this rendition of “Animaniacs”: the episodes are too long. The shift from three, highly varying segments an episode to two stretches a funny concept to its limit. While the original show toted six possible sketches to choose from for any particular episode, the new episodes only alternate between the main Warner siblings and veteran sketch characters Pinky and the Brain, a format that quickly becomes formulaic. While this problem wouldn’t be as noticeable were it a weekly show, it just feels hypocritical that a show so focused on being a streamable reboot for the modern era is so poorly optimized for binging.
Where “Animaniacs” fails structurally however, it is redeemed artistically. The show benefits from modern animation techniques, adopting visual gags that wouldn’t be possible in the ‘90s, most notably complete shifts to anime art styles for fight scenes and Sanrio-esque animation for Dot Warner’s kawaii takeover. Even in the main animation style, characters pop against classic backgrounds, the Warners somehow look more “cartoony” than the characters surrounding them, and quick character movements look a lot more fluid than before.
Finally, the modern era has brought “Animaniacs’’ humor beyond the screen. Being able to watch the Pinky and the Brain segment of episode six with a pause button unlocks a new joke. The screen reads “Planet Domination” along with a “fake” phone number, and calling it directs you to a phone sex hotline. Though Hulu has since changed the number to one that’s actually fake, it’s the perfect example of the elevated and subtle humor that “Animaniacs” is known for.
“Animaniacs” (2020) is a confusing show to review because in truth, it is an adequate series that’s worth a tentative watch. The disappointment only seeps in because of the standard “Animaniacs” set for itself in the past. By having such great jokes and segments, the missteps appear with such glaring contrast that a passable episode looks horrible in comparison to a great one. While “Animaniacs” (2020) is inconsistent in its quality, it is never bad. It just ranges from spectacular to mediocre, and seeing those passable moments is like watching your straight-A student get a C––it only hurts as much as it does because you know they can do better. The new “Animaniacs” is good, but it has so many moments when you can see its potential to be great, and that’s what makes it so frustrating.
And those are the facts!