It’s been a rough year, to say the least. So rough that globally heightened anxiety and pain has changed our tolerance for dark, gritty entertainment. Even Black Mirror’s writer has taken a break from working on the show, since the world now seems like one particularly long and twisted episode from that dystopian anthology series.
It’s in this climate that Animaniacs—the zany, satirical slapstick show about three cartoon characters causing mayhem—returns after 22 years off the air, and it couldn’t be more welcome. It’s not an escape from reality, as the reboot leans into its political commentary, but it’s a much more colorful, joyful version of it, where nearly any problem can be solved with a giant hammer pulled out of one’s pocket. Animaniacs only wants one reaction from audiences of any age, and that’s laughs. It succeeds tremendously.
Hulu’s rebooted series maintains the same core of the original series, bringing back Steven Spielberg as a producer and many of the same voice actors, composers, and writers who created it. Each 24-minute episode block consists of three shorts of varying length, usually two starring the Warner brothers Yakko (Rob Paulsen) and Wakko (Jess Harnell), and the Warner sister, Dot (Tress MacNeille), with the middle segment going to Pinky (Paulsen) and the Brain (Laurice LaMarche). Without any narrative throughline, Animaniacs remains a show you can watch in any order and enjoy.
In terms of style and format, Animaniacs’ closest cousin is likely Looney Tunes, which similarly features a cast of both anthropomorphic animals and humans who get into all kinds of slapstick situations. However, the former strikes its own unique tone, combining the physical comedy with under-the-radar adult humor and satire. Its satire in particular appears the most changed through the reboot, leaning even more heavily into modern politics and trends to the point where I worry that younger audiences may grow tired of the near-constant barrage of references and innuendos. But then again, especially today, kids understand a lot more than people give them credit for, so I imagine many of them will be in on the jokes as well. In any case, the flow of action is fast enough that one or two missed jokes hardly matter, as another is sure to come mere seconds later.
For older audiences, however, it’s refreshing to see the show’s satire actually take political stances instead of falling into the crowd-pleasing “both sides”-isms many modern comedies now take. Although it’s never radical, the series addresses issues such as gun control and the corruption of our outgoing administration with conviction and wit. (Don’t expect any references to the pandemic, however, since Yakko explicitly tells the audience the script was written in 2018. Instead, they resort to “wild guesses” about the past two years, including that we all live underground to hide from vengeful polar bears, which is close enough.)
The show’s animation is another point in which Warner Bros. has improved upon the original’s foundation, with its new style emulating the classic look of the ‘90s cartoon while adding more complex and experimental sequences throughout. One of the most stunning examples is a high-octane anime sequence straight out of Dragon Ball Z, where the Warner siblings transform into exaggerated versions of themselves. The series’ new title credits for the overall show and the “Pinky and the Brain” segments are especially eye-catching, with fun and fluid animations that I was never tired of watching.
“Pinky and the Brain” seems like it could be its own show (and for a while in the ‘90s, it actually was), but it keeps the same style of humor found in other segments with a slightly heavier emphasis on each episode’s story. Along with the “help” of the dimwitted but ever-lovable Pinky, the Brain comes up with a new far-fetched idea to rule the world each night, which always goes horribly wrong. It’s a tried-and-true format that works just as well today as it always has.
One of the original runs’ most beloved elements was its soundtrack, which employed a full orchestra with at least one original score per episode and a variety of catchy songs. Animaniacs’ music continues to be one of its stand-out qualities, utilizing the same style of music and coming out of the gate with two fantastic musical numbers in its premiere alone. These were my absolute favorite parts of the show, as the lighthearted satire and orchestral music combines to make a type of Broadway-style performance which can be simultaneously irreverent and joyful.
That’s the word that keeps coming to mind when thinking about this show: joyful. Animaniacs may not match other animated shows’ high-brow humor or enthralling stories, but it’s able to contain so much unadulterated fun that the other things I may be looking for don’t seem to matter. Hulu’s new season isn’t a reimagining of the original; it’s a continuation. And in the 22 years since they left the airwaves, the Warner Siblings haven’t missed a beat.
All 13 episodes of Animaniacs will be available to stream Friday, November 20th on Hulu.
Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and The Post. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.
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