There is baloney in Judge Adam Arseneau's slacks. At least that's what he tells the girls.
"We're the Warner Brothers!"
From executive producer Stephen Spielberg comes Animaniacs, the flagship of its 1990s American animation heyday with the annoyingly catchy theme song. Chameleonic in nature, the show transmogrifies between variety show, educational program, and Merrie Melodies-style slapstick at the drop of a hat, lampooning and spoofing every possible medium and cultural reference within striking distance.
As it turns out in Animaniacs: Volume 1, animation + maniacs = not just a clever title.
Facts of the Case
The legend goes something like this: Created by Warner Bros. studio during the animation boom of the 1930s, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot were to be the studio's newest success story. However, the creations soon wrought a Frankenstein-like level of disobedience upon their creators and ran amuck throughout the Warner Bros. movie lot, causing hilarious mayhem for all involved.
Unable to control their creations (and unable to understand the nonsensical cartoons they produced), the studio decided to dispose of their creations the best way they knew how: ignoring the problem. Locking the hapless 'toons up in the iconic Warner Bros. water tower, things returned to normality for the studio for the last half century—that is, until the present day. Now the Warner Brothers (and sister) have managed to escape the confines of the water tower and are ready to run rampant throughout the studio once again!
Along for the ride are:
The Goodfeathers—Bobby, Squit, and Pesto, tough-guy New York mobster pigeons with an uncanny resemblance to Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, and Joe Pesci.
Pinky and The Brain—two gene-spliced laboratory mice with megalomaniac plans of world domination. At least Brain does. Pinky seems content to watch TV.
Rita and Runt—an unlikely alliance between a smart, streetwise diva cat and a dull-witted, loyal mutt. Definitely, definitely.
Slappy the Squirrel—a grizzled, Golden Era ex-cartoon star forced into retirement and her young, impressionable nephew fend off attack from a geriatric group of Slappy's old antagonists—usually with explosives.
"I haven't been this upset since we made Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead!"—Thaddeus Plotz, Warner Bros. Studio
Somewhere along the way, I had forgotten that I loved Animaniacs. Perhaps inactivity in that particular region in my brain led to atrophy over the last decade, but after watching a handful of hilarious episodes on this DVD, my brain cells have now spontaneously regenerated. Revisiting the show a decade later, I still love the zaniness, the incredibly broad appeal of the show to all age groups, and the irreverent pop-culture references that no child in their right mind would ever, ever get. I mean, the Goodfellas parody alone, with the main running joke being a pigeon-ish impression of Joe Pesci's short, violently explosive temper from a film that no little kid would ever have seen? What youngster is going to truly appreciate that gag? I mean, really.
Having been, ahem, "created" in the early 1920s, with the animation style of solid black animations with white faces (think early Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, etc.) the Warner Brother characters themselves are a deliciously wicked send-up on a little-known animation character named Bosko, one of Warner Bros.'s first cartoon characters who, like the modern-day incarnations, fared extremely poorly and was banished to the vaults. Indeed, the entire notion of the Warner Brothers (and sister) is a send-up of the pseudo-mythology of the Warner Bros. movie lot, an iconic Hollywood location that personifies everything about the glamour and allure of the movie business—all of it now comedic fodder to be exploited.
It is no surprise that much of the comedy from Animaniacs comes from tearing into every Hollywood in-joke the writers can think of. In one episode, virtually every hit movie from the era is lampooned, including Terminator 2, Batman, Aliens, The Addams Family, and Wayne's World get shot down, all within a five-minute period. Heck, in the episode "Hearts of Twilight," which finds a crazy movie director millions of dollars over budget on his jungle war epic, the CEO sends the Warners out to stop him. Ring any bells, you film aficionados?
Nothing is sacred for the Warner Brothers, whose taste for destruction borders on sheer anarchy. Few were aware that Beethoven, Einstein, Michelangelo, and Albert Einstein achieved their respected success in their chosen fields due solely to the siblings' meddling, while Broadway is torn a proverbial new one by full-on musical parodies like "Les Miseranimals" and "West Side Pigeons." The show's creators even persuaded Bernadette Peters to contribute the voice of Rita the Cat, hurling satirical razors at every Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim production within striking distance.
The Warners possess a Gonzo-like mysterious quality regarding their species identity and are hypothesized to be dogs, cats, or possibly even giant bugs by various cast members. Of course, their actual identity is obvious: they're the Warner Brothers! Yakko inhabits the murky nether regions between Groucho Marx and a used car salesman, while Wakko feels like the long-lost love child between Andy Capp and Ringo Starr. As for the sister Dot, she's cuuuuuute. (Running joke, you see.)
With the exception of Pinky and The Brain, who were entertaining enough in their own right to warrant their own spin-off (see our review of Pinky and the Brain: Volume 1), none of the other characters hold as much solid enjoyment as the Warners themselves. Sure, the Goodfeathers have their moments, but most of the laughs are solidly in the Warner camp, plus associated cast: Dr. Scratchansniff, the Nurse, and so on. Rita and Runt, and Buttons and Mindy have their moments of course, but Runt can get annoying, Slappy irritates me, and I just flat-out despise the hippos.
Each episode usually divides itself into three small mini-vignettes, with at least one featuring the Warners exclusively and the others featuring the sub-cast. Of course, in the most literal interpretation of a "running gag," the Warners usually go flying by at some point. In fact, a lot of Animaniacs is built on the foundation of the running gag, with an almost manic level of repetition and obsession on the part of the show's writers. Rarely does a show swing so far in both directions, stooping to the lowest of common denominators in physical buffoonery and anvil-dropping clownery before ricocheting into intellectual, burlesque satire. Top this off with some solid educational songs, teaching children about things like the vast infinitity of the universe ("It's a great big universe, and we're all really puny / We're just tiny little specs about the size of Mickey Rooney") and geography (Yakko's infamous "geography lesson" where he makes a song out of every single country name) and you have one of the most broadly appealing animation shows ever conceived. Be you six years old or sixty, there is something in Animaniacs that will make you laugh, I assure you.
Rather than present the show on DVD bundled by series, Warner Bros. has opted to release Animaniacs in volume ensembles. Volume 1 contains the first 25 episodes and future sets will also contain as many episodes, with four sets in total. This seems a silly practice, until one examines the absurdly unbalanced episode distribution in each season. With such a bizarre distribution, it makes a kind of sense to simply divide the lot equally into four and release. Purists might be irked, but purists tend to do that.
Since each half-hour episode consists of three separate "episodes," each directed (and probably animated) at separate times by separate staff, the animation style and quality of Animaniacs: Volume 1 is fairly inconsistent. Color quality, animation style, and even character designs often fluctuate from episode to episode. Overall, the transfer looks its age, maybe even a few years older, with noticeable cell damage and graininess, and the fidelity of the transfer is severely suspect, with easily noticeable pixilation and compression artifacts. It is a mediocre presentation, but colors are bright and black levels are reasonable.
One of the best aspects of Animaniacs is the music, bar none. The score for each episode is lavishly composed with the finest in full orchestral cartoonery, just like the Looney Tunes cartoons of old. It brings the show to life in such a wonderful fashion. Two English audio tracks are present, a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track and a 2.0 stereo track, both sounding virtually identical in terms of clarity, easily discernable dialogue, but slightly weak bass response. The 5.1 track is the top choice, giving the orchestral score a wonderfully immersive presentation. Then for some reason, also included is a ratty-sounding mono Portuguese track. I'm not even going to try to explain that one. It sounds egregiously bad, like somebody recorded it off the original television broadcast with a cassette recorder. Why only Portuguese? Who knows?
There are three subtitle tracks, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, but for some reason, no English subtitles. This also cannot be easily explained.
Animaniacs: Volume 1 only has one extra to speak of, but it's a good one—a 30-minute interview conducted via satellite by Maurice LaMarche (voice of the Brain), waxing reminisce with cast and crew. First up are Rob Paulsen, Jess Harnell, and Tress MacNeile (voices of Yakko, Wakko, and Dot respectively). Voice actors always have a surprising amount of insight to add to the creative process and characters and it's nice to put faces to the animations. Watch in stunned amazement as Rob Paulsen rattles off the Geography Song from memory and Maurice LaMarche belches like a maniac. These guys are hilarious. LaMarche then interviews producer/writer/voice actor Sherri Stoner, composers Steven and Julie Benstein, and voice director Andrea Romano, all excellent interviews.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Watching Animaniacs again after so many years was a bittersweet revisiting. After all, I am no longer 14 years old. The appeal that these cartoons once had upon my young, impressionable pre-teenage mind have been replaced by a tempering of adult sophistication and maturity, robbing a lot of enjoyment out of skits that I remembered being hilariously funny at the time, but now find stale, juvenile, and kind of stupid.
However, there is an up side. Now I am old enough to appreciate all the mature cultural references that eluded the younger me, I am amazed at the sheer volume of material that simply flew over my head, like the "H.M.S. Yakko" musical sketch ("We are the very models of cartoon individuals!"). I had like, zero chance of getting that joke as a kid. I mean, absolutely no @#$% chance.
Revisiting the show, you may find that you have lost some appreciation, but you gain an entirely new perspective. I can live with that.
What a fantastic show, still surprisingly hilarious after all these years. Spielberg and company have crafted a brilliant example of postmodern humor put through a blender, a well-struck balance between sophisticated pop culture satire and childish Acme destruction. Between Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs, the Looney Tunes cartoons of old have been reinvented for a new generation, crammed full of pop-cultural references and rapid-fire editing, perfect for the generation of limited attention spans, with enough zany mirthmaking to make Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, and the rest of the Termite Terrace team proud.
The video quality of the transfer is a bit disconcerting, but Animaniacs: Volume 1 delights in every other aspect. Long absent on DVD, I can actually hear the sounds of Animaniacs fans from the long-running alt.tv.animaniacs newsgroup cheering from my window, floating gently in the wind…
Animaney and totally insaney, all in one package.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Animaniacs Live!": Maurice LaMarce interviews the Animaniacs Cast and Crew
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