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Animaniacs (2020)

It might be fashionable to claim that Hollywood has run out of ideas, but the truth is, remakes are nothing new. They have been around almost as long at the medium of film itself. So the current wave of TV and film mining the IPs of the 80s and 90s is just the latest in a long tradition. The Steven Speilberg produced Animaniacs, originally aired between 1993 and 1998 and is widely considered to be one of the best animated series of the decade. The 2020 series sees Spielberg return, but a whole new creative team behind it. Original creator Tom Ruegger is nowhere to be seen, and instead new showrunner Wellesley Wild heads up a fresh new generation of writing and directing talent.

Animaniacs (2020) is no radical reinvention ala She-Ra, DuckTales or Thundercats Roar. Perhaps this is down to the fact that - dated references and some jokes that wouldn't fly in the 2020s aside- the original has aged more gracefully than many of its contemporaries. The term is flung around liberally but this is no true 'reboot'- the characters in the show are the same that appeared in the original, and it is in the same continuity. Not that it really matters in a comedy show with no ongoing plot, of course. 


Like the original, the series features The Warner BrothersYakko and Wakko and the Warner Sister, Dot, three zany cartoon.. things (what exactly are they? Dogs? Rabbits? ) who run around causing mayhem on the Warner Movie lot, and further afield. At least until they get caught and locked back up in the iconic WB water tower. The 90s version was supported by a cast of supporting characters who also starred in their own episodes, including Slappy The Squirrel, Buttons and Mindy and The Goodfeathers. Only Pinky and Brain, the scheming laboratory mice- who were popular enough to earn their own spin-off series in 1995- have made the cut to return. It's understandable why this decision was made, after all when you think of Animaniacs its the Warner Siblings and Pinky and The Brain who are most likely to come to mind. Still, for original fans, characters like Slappy and Chicken Boo, and regular segments such as "Good Idea, Bad Idea" will be missed.

The makers of the new series (many of who grew up with the OG version) have tried their best to stay true to the original while updating it for the modern audience. It's easy to forget now, but the original show was intended as something of a throwback in the first place. Like the earlier Tiny Toon Adventures, it was an attempt to create something akin to classic Looney Tunes or Merry Melodies cartoons for a contemporary audience, drawing on Warner Bros' rich history of animated classics. The Warners specifically were introduced as supposedly lost characters from the 1930s (although their design more closely references characters from Disney or The Fleischers). The humour always had a sort of timeless quality to it. The way Yakko, Wakko and Dot will torture some poor character is almost exactly the same way Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck would. This same sense survives into the new show. However, for fans of the original, this is now mixed in with a sense of nostalgia for the 90s series itself. 


The animation also reflects this balance between the old and the new. The animation is now in HD and widescreen but still looks consistent with the original overall. It's all a bit slicker now but the characters have not been given any radical overhauls. The main characters are recognisable and celebrity caricatures are as unflattering as in the original. There's more playfulness this time around though, and a readiness to switch up the animation styles for a particular sequence.  Among the most notable is a sequence which features an anime-esque style, which is better than many other western attempts to mimic the look. It goes as far as to even seem to reference the style of a particular studio, fan favourites Trigger (Kill La Kill, Promare).

The best animation of all though comes with  one time that the new Animaniacs includes a short that features neither the Warners nor Pinky and The Brain. Katie Rice's Starbox and Cindy features an alien from a would-be invading Armada. Unfortunately for him, it turns out the aliens are tiny in comparison to humans, and he instead finds himself the unwilling prisoner of a young girl. It looks like nothing else on TV and nothing like anything in the rest of the show. The originality runs deeper than the visuals though, from its epic and lightly sinister theme song to the fact that Cindy's dialogue is recorded seemingly by just capturing the adorable babblings of an actual child. Hopefully, we can expect this to be a sign of more things to come- either more Starbox and Cindy or at least more experimentation. In comparison, the rest of the animation is much more conventional, but it does the job just fine. 

 

Aside from these occasional tangents, this just feels like Animaniacs of old. The characters feel like they are the same characters we remember. The references may be updated but otherwise, it feels much like business as usual.  A not-insignificant amount of the credit for this has to go to the returning voice cast.  Rob Paulson (Yakko and Pinky) Jess Harnell (Wakko) Tress MacNeille (Dot) and Maurice LaMarche (Brain) created some of the most iconic voice performances in animation history. It's impossible to imagine Animaniacs without them.  Indeed, supposedly Speilberg himself insisted they were brought back, or he wouldn't allow the revival to happen. They've not lost their edge in the slightest, and if anything they have improved over time. They are so familiar with these characters having lived with them so long. They no doubt brought much of that into their performances and were able to steer the new writers along the right path. Songwriter Randy Rogel is also back to provide the new series with some memorable tunes. Rogel's new compositions appear alongside a line-up of tracks from newer composers, including an updated version of the theme tune and perfectly suited new songs, such as Reboot it and The First Lady Song.  So Animaniacs 2020 even sounds like Animaniacs.

The comedy feels spot-on too, a mix of classic slapsticky cartoon humour and smart writing, cultural references and parody. Naturally, the new series gets plenty of mileage out of self-referential humour and making fun out of the concepts of reboots themselves.  It's all very in keeping with the show's style. As the updated theme song says "we did meta first". 


 

It pokes fun at everyone and everything but chooses its biggest targets carefully. The usual suspects will claim it's "too political", but it always has made fun of the powerful- both in politics and Hollywood. It never gets more explicit than in the segment "Bun Control", when it uses the none-too-subtle metaphor of the Warners getting overrun by rabbits to point out the absurdity of the real-world situation it's referencing.

It's all in good fun and never feels too mean spirited- although The Warners' visit to Russia features a cascade of stereotypes and cold-war cliches that could be seen as skirting perilously close to crossing the line. Your mileage may vary here.

The mix of the old and the new crew members seems to have been the right call, as it shines through that everybody involved really loves Animaniacs. Whether they worked on it originally or watched it as a kid, there's a sense that everybody gets what made the show so successful in the first place and makes sure that the new show has it too.

Bringing back something that meant so much to so many people is always a big risk Something that was part of so many childhoods only more so.  Fortunatley Animaniacs (2020) manages to make it look easy. But if you don't feel that way? The original is only a click away.



 FORMAT: SERIES AVAILABLE ON: STREAMING FROM: HULU  RATING:TV-Y 7 RUNNING TIME : 22mins x  13 episodes

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IN A NUTSHELL: THE ANIMANIACS ARE BACK AND JUST AS SHARP AND FUNNY AS THEY WERE 22 YEARS AGO



★★★★

 


WRITTEN WITH ASSISTANCE FROM DENHERY OLGUIN

*screener provided by Hulu/Warner Bros Animation*

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