Judge Adam Arseneau may well be pondering what you are pondering, but he's not sure if he can memorize a whole opera in Yiddish.
"Pinky…are you pondering what I'm pondering?"
Created as a spinoff from the popular, irreverent and zany hit show Animaniacs, Stephen Spielberg's Pinky and the Brain spent three years on the air trying to take over the world. Pinky and the Brain: Volume 1, the adventures of a laboratory mouse with a Napoleonic complex and his dimwitted sidekick, will loosen money from your wallet faster than misappropriating Milk Duds from an infant.
Knowing our generation, more people probably know the words to the Pinky and the Brain theme song than the National Anthem.
"They're Pinky, they're Pinky and the Brain Brain Brain Brain Brain …"
Facts of the Case
In Acme Labs, two gene-spliced laboratory mice are surprisingly active, laying in wait for the humans to leave for the night. Once alone, the large-craniumed one with the Orson Welles-esque baritone plots grand plans of world domination, while the sillier one seems content to watch television, act ridiculous, and cause mayhem.
Who are they? They're Pinky and The Brain. Every night, Brain comes up with fiendishly complex plans to enslave humanity and become supreme ruler, while Pinky looks on dimwittedly. Unfortunately, Brain's plans usually unravel faster than a yarn ball in a room full of kittens, and before the night is through, the mice are back in their cages in the lab, resting up for tomorrow night…when they try to take over the world!
Pinky and the Brain took a different approach than Spielberg and company's previous hits, Animaniacs and Tiny Toon Adventures, which sought to mimic the feverish hilarity of Looney Tunes cartoons of old. More focused and less schizophrenic than its predecessors, the show was episodic in nature, with Brain's ill-fated plans for world domination taking on Machiavellian levels of intricate complexity. As such, the tone of the show is much more conventional and straight-forward, which is not to say "less funny." The gags are simply structured and are dealt out in slower, measured doses, rather than the all-out assault from the hyperactive Warner Brothers and company. Age has been kind to the show, which is still as funny as the day it was animated.
Usually employing some Rube Goldberg-type machine to free them from their nightly imprisonment in the Acme Labs, Brain's Napoleonic schemes to enslave humanity and make himself ruler of the globe create a great deal of enjoyment. Some of them are brilliant, like duping the State Department out of a government loan, while others are, err, misguided to say the least, like becoming a country-western singer in order to hypnotize the masses. Still, all reek of grandeur greater than the confines of a small laboratory mouse. Despite his cold, calculating demeanor, Brain's disturbingly high failure rate makes him the perpetual underdog. Fans of the show tune in not only to see how spectacularly misguided and catastrophic his plans fail, but also to root for the mouse chasing the windmills.
On the other hand, Pinky (voiced by Rob Paulsen, best known as Yakko from Animaniacs) fulfills the show's need to appeal to a young, childlike audience and preserves the zany absurdist requirements of a Warner Bros. animation. He trips a lot, says things like "Narf!" and "Poit!," and is the dimwitted Costello to Brain's Abbott. Of course, some think Pinky is the real genius of the group. After all, it is a fine line between brilliance and insanity. Plus, he is the key component to one of the best long-running gags ever in an animated show. Rubbing his hands gleefully, Brain asks, "Are you pondering what I'm pondering?," and Pinky answers in the most irreverent, non-sequitur possible manner each episode.
"I think so, Brain, but, the Rockettes? I mean, it's mostly girls, isn't it?"
Then The Brain twitches in anger. It gets funnier every time, I assure you.
Though the show is not quite as satirical as Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain still manages to throw in as many barbs as possible, parodying Godzilla, The Shadow radio show, Winnie the Pooh, The Twilight Zone, and in an especially ironic twist, The Third Man and the original Mercury Theater radio broadcast of "War Of The Worlds." Voice actor Maurice LaMarche describes Brain's voice as "65 percent Orson Welles, 35 percent Vincent Price," which is a fairly accurate representation of Brain's monotonic deadpan; as the show developed its own unique take on the characters, Brain became more and more Wellesian, if you know what I mean. It is also no coincidence that LaMarche is usually called upon to provide his dead-on Welles impression for many other films and media, most noticeably overdubbing Vincent D'Onofrio's dialogue in Ed Wood. At its core, it is still children's programming, but some of the political satire and digging is sophisticated well beyond the show's years, giving the show an almost universal appeal to any audience.
Despite the fact that every single episode begins with an identical premise—trying to take over the world—and every episode ending with exactly the same outcome, e.g. back to the drawing board, Pinky and the Brain rarely feels repetitive. The writing staff manages to come up with increasingly outlandish and absurdly grand plans of global conquest to keep Pinky and the Brain occupied for 30 minutes before dashing their plans into the ground through ineptitude, plain bad luck, or a bizarre Freudian tendency of Brain to secretly sabotage his own plans. After all, if he actually managed to take over the world…well, then he'd have nothing to do the next day.
Similar to Animaniacs: Volume 1, Pinky and the Brain is being released in volumes rather than seasons, with each incarnation containing two-dozen episodes (three sets total). DVD collectors accustomed to complete season sets may bristle, but the format allows for each box set to be balanced equally in terms of episode count, rather than having releases of varying length.
The show exhibits some nasty digital compression artifacts similar to the Animaniacs set, but the show being a few years newer than its counterpart, it looks a bit more solid to the eyes. Colors and black levels are acceptable for a cartoon from the mid-1990s, but does suffer some fairly regular celluloid damage. On a basic television set, the show certainly does the job, but anyone with higher fidelity equipment will notice the flaws in the transfer almost immediately.
While not as purely operatic as its Looney Tunes brethren, the show nevertheless features some excellent orchestral work and original songs, with the score for each episode lavishly composed. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Stereo track do a marvelous job of preserving the presentation, which is clear and well-defined, but a bit thin on the bass end. Inexplicably, a ratty, dreadful sounding mono track of Portuguese is also included, which I find somewhat baffling. However, I'll just have to say that the theme song is absolutely hilarious in Portuguese.
Only one feature: a 25-minute interview with voice actors Rob Paulson and Maurice LaMarche, and voice director Andrea Romano discussing how much fun they had making the show. The three have a surprising amount of insight to add to their characters and the behind-the-scenes construction of the show, as well as introducing interviews with some of the cast and crew. I especially like Maurice explaining the origins of Brain's voice characterization stemming from his infamous Welles impersonation of the "frozen peas" outtakes, which most cinema aficionados know of all too well.
No English subtitles, which is a shame, but the disc does include French, Spanish, and (you guessed it) Portuguese text.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is a lot to like in Pinky and the Brain, but the show does not take nearly as many chances as its contemporaries. Rather than simply spoofing everything in sight, the show focuses more on story-driven arcs of Brain's failed world domination. Compared to peers like Freakazoid and Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain feels downright harmless and inoffensive; witty, but never satirically daring or groundbreaking. Funny, but not always "ha ha" funny, you know?
But heaven help us, it sure is better than the abysmal retooling Warner Bros. performed on the show, Pinky, Elmyra and the Brain. The last time a property got so thoroughly ruined, Chernobyl was evacuated.
While not as bizarre, scathingly satirical or outlandish as Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain offers a more sophisticated, well-mannered foray into comedy than its parental unit. A well-written show with actual plots, story arcs, and hilarious plans that backfire catastrophically, Pinky and the Brain has an incredibly broad appeal and is easy to recommend on DVD, even with the wishy-washy transfer.
The Judge would normally render a verdict, but he had to prepare for tomorrow night…when he tries to take over the w—oh, forget it.
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• "Are You Pondering What I Am Pondering?": Featurette with Rob Paulson, Maurice LaMarche, and Andrea Romano
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