It's Time for Animaniacs!....Again!
(I wrote this post originally back in November, but moved it here because I think it's still timely.)
Ok, so I just finished the Animaniacs reboot and have to say it's everything a reboot should be. Watching it is like seeing a really great friend that you haven't seen in 22 years. You both know there's no way to pick up exactly where you left off, and you can't pretend that the last 22 years hasn't happened, that it hasn't impacted you both. But it quickly becomes clear that even though your friend has had some work done and has clearly been hanging out with Ren and Stimpy a LOT during the interim, you still have the same heart and humor you once shared.
I think the best reboots allow the viewer to enjoy the show itself, but also gain a new appreciation for the original show. If you were a kid in the 90's, this show was part of your afternoon. Everything produced is a product of its time, and the original show that aired from 1993-1998 is definitely a product of the Clinton-era. It's not just dated by the pop-culture references and 90's era movie stars making cameos, but the entire vibe of the show is one of a sort of pie-eyed optimism born of a time of economic prosperity and political stability. The Disney Renaissance was under way, and clearly had an influence on the show's design, from the doe-eyed character designs to the lush gauche and watercolor backgrounds. The digital revolution had begun, but hand-drawn animation still reigned supreme, especially in the afternoon hours. And Steven Spielberg was at the pinnacle of his Hollywood clout. Because Spielberg had his hands in lots of projects, the staff of the original Animaniacs were given immense freedom and creative control over the show, resulting in a marvelous modge-podge of nerdy, eclectic wit, up-to the minute (this was pre-South Park) satire, meta humor, and homage after homage to everything that makes Tinsel Town tick. It was a great time to be an animator, and that freewheeling kid-in-a-candy-store feel was brought to life in the form the Warner Brothers and Warner Sister, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot. It appealed to young people across a vast spectrum, from third grade up to 22. Now that it's streaming on Hulu along with the reboot, I am delighted to go back for a re-watch and catch jokes and references I missed the first time around.
Of course, it's not without its flaws. The 90's came with plenty of casual sexism, something that the reboot has tried to rectify by removing Hello Nurse, Minerva Mink, and Katie Kaboom. And I'll be honest, I wasn't expecting to find it so darn refreshing. Even as a kid, I hated the cringey sketches that either spent the entire eight minutes sexually objectifying a mink (wtf?!) or depicting teenage girls as utterly insane and irrational. Hello Nurse bothered me a little less simply because she was mostly just a walk-on role, and they did finally write in a song for her admitting that she was in fact very intelligent, had multiple degrees and served as a UN ambassador. Plus, they did take a swing at gender equality by having Dot go equally gaga for any hunky dude that made a cameo, it just didn't happen as frequently.
I will miss Slappy Squirrel, and Mindy and Buttons. Some characters just max out their potential, but the fact that the most cynical character the show sported was a cantankerous elderly squirrel just speaks to the precious heart of it. I also miss the variety show aspect of it. It wasn't just the variety of types of joke that they were able to make with throw-away characters like Mime Time and Mr. Skull head. The animators would sometimes take a risk on something new just for the sake of telling a story. Every so often, they'd make a cartoon that seemed totally apropos of nothing. Like the two shorts they made from the point of view of a candle flame who was observing the declaration of independence being drafted, or who served a pivotal role in the ride of Paul Revere. Or, in what is to this day probably one of my favorite shorts of all time, that Christmas short about the journey of a piece of wrapping paper. I've carried that around in my brain since middle school. It taught me the power of visual story telling, the emotion that the medium of animation could infuse into an inanimate object without even drawing a face or eyeballs on it. It still makes me tear up. And probably contributes to my tendency to hoard wrapping paper. I wouldn't get emotionally attached to a piece of paper again until Pixar released Paperman.
And yet, just like that scrap of wrapping paper, time, and specifically the Trump administration, has crumpled and sullied us all. The new Animaniacs reboot was written in 2018, and it just shows what an insane rollercoaster the past two years has been when the material already feels dated. The humor and the patter is still the same...basically. Yet, where before the Warners may have taken jabs at particular caricatures of people, it still felt lighthearted. The anvils didn't fall as heavy, perhaps. The cartoon violence seemed almost to exist by means of an unspoken social contract: You be mean or snippy or unaccommodating to these fractious children and you get hit with a mallet. Foibles were skewered with the same hand that would pat on the back. "We mock because we care, or at least find you interesting". Under it all, there was this sense of childlike wonder at the bizarre biome that is Hollywood. The Warner kids caused mischief and mayhem, but there was always a sense that they belonged in the water tower and the mayhem itself was the point.
Now it just feels different. The politics is more ham fisted, there's more of a social justice warrior mentality to the commentary. The supporting or adversary characters are all rendered in a slightly grotesque way that ranges from mildly off-putting to borderline terrifying. This creates a dynamic that is taking itself too seriously. There's a sense that these are bad guys to be vanquished, that they are a legitimate threat. Why does everyone have pointy teeth all of a sudden? To be fair, that's a question I feel I've been asking about the world for four years now. The water tower seems less a place meant to be escaped than a place to seek refuge. The innocence is gone. There's a sense that the kids aren't really young anymore, they are just playing young characters, where before they were simply worldly young creatures with an advanced knowledge of cinematic references. In real life, they've seen some shit. Maybe they dropped out of Hollywood for 20 years to help Wakko overcome his alcoholism. Maybe Yakko made some bad investments and spent three years coping with a crippling depression, unable to finish his screenplay. But even though there are still laughs aplenty, there's still this underpinning sense of "We're all older now."
Yet old or not, I am so thankful that it is all the original vocal cast. For better or worse, I'm grateful that once again I can turn on my tv and hear familiar voices in a year where there are so many familiar voices I have heard far too little of. Instead of the 4 p.m. time slot I watched as a kid, nowadays I watch while I'm folding laundry at 11pm, the time of day when there is barely any of me left. Every night this week I fell asleep on the couch with Animaniacs playing. It wasn't because it wasn't entertaining. Quite the contrary. I'd drift off, my cheeks stiff from smiling, more happy and content than I have felt in a long, long time.