It’s not supposed to work this way.
Beloved shows are cancelled all the time and, occasionally, get revived by other networks or sheer fan support. However, because of the passage of time, aging cast or simply just changing cultural trends, these shows are rarely as good as the original incarnation.
So, how is Animaniacs managing to meet the massive expectations of the original series and (maybe) even surpassing it?
First incarnated from 1993-1998, Animaniacs is the animated adventures of the Warner siblings, Wakko, Yakko and Dot, who live in the Warner Bros. Water Tower on the WB Studio lot in Burbank, California. In a collection of short cartoons, the Warners move through time, argue with network executives, battle monsters and try to get their email working properly. At the same time, the show also features characters like Pinky and the Brain, two laboratory mice committed every night to ‘trying to take over the world’ and others who are involved in their own silliness along the way.
Confused? That’s okay. They promise in the theme song that they’re ‘totally insane-y’.
Produced by Steven Spielberg, Animaniacs has always banked on the ridiculous in order to set it apart from other animated fare. For a series that disappeared almost 25 years ago, it’s remarkable that it remains as frenetic as ever. Sharply written and furiously executed, the show has maintained a sort of ‘timeless’ quality to its storytelling. Taking the most basic of premises (‘trapped in a movie studio’ and ‘taking over the world’), Animaniacs remains somewhat disjointed from any particular place and time. As a result, they have maintained the ability to adapt to the moment, blowing up the cultural icons of the time with satire and silliness. With ‘Chuck Jones-esque’ vitality, this remains a series that wants to bombard the viewer with as much humour as possible, making it easily re-watchable as well.
Interestingly though, while it’s not unusual for animated fare to include pop culture references that skew towards adults, Animaniacs almost feels like it has taken the opposite approach. Leaning into allusions to Donald Trump, Oliver Twist and even 90s sitcoms such as Cheers and Fresh Prince of Bel Air, sometimes the show feels like its writing for parents as its primary audience. That’s not to say that it’s not appropriate for children. This is very much a children’s product with its eye-popping animation and physical humour. (In fact, both my 6- and 11-year old boys find the show hilarious.) Even so, the series’ emphasis on meta humour (they remind you that they did ‘do meta first’) and political references still seem more targeted to parents as opposed to little ones.
What’s always been interesting about Animaniacs is the role of the Warners themselves. As the show’s central characters, they have always exemplified pure, borderline anarchistic joy and fun. (I mean, the whole premise of the show is that they refuse to remain trapped in a water tower…) Shattering rules in the name of youthful playfulness, Yakko, Wakko and Dot exemplify innocence… in their own way. However, there’s a question that arises during season two that I’d never considered before.
Are they heroes?
Held up against the hilarious maniacism of Pinky and the Brain, the Warners seem to be the ‘good’ characters of the series. Even so, the Warners are not types to proclaim any sort of pious values or virtue that they’re ‘fighting for’. Ultimately, their primary concern seems to be… well… fun. However, in the Oliver Twist parody, there’s a moment this season where they are asked to join Fagan as pickpockets and Wakko refuses. (‘Stealing is bad,’ he proclaims.) Although, when Fagan ‘reframes’ it—they’re actually redistributing wealth—they’re willing to participate. To them, that makes sense… and the activity still feels innocent. They may not be intentionally trying to make the world a better place… but neither do they want to hurt anyone either.
In this way, maybe ‘heroes’ is too specific a term for the Warners. With childlike inexperience and enthusiasm, they’re trying to learn about the world and why the things that we value are important to us in the first place. Their ‘insany-ness’ stems from an innate desire to explore and bust down the social barriers that we’ve constructed around ourselves. To the Warners, spoiled children, Roman empires and spam folders are all just opportunities to ask questions and push boundaries.
When others are asking ‘why?’, they’re simply going to ask ‘why not?’
The truth is that, regardless as to the Warners’ true motivations, Animaniacs continues to sparkle with an innate and infectious joy. Despite their age, the adventures of the Warners and misadventures of Pinky and the Brain show no signs of rust. With that in mind, although the series technically was rebooted with the intent to create two seasons, these chaotic cartoons still definitely have a lot of life left in them should they (hopefully) decide to extend the contract. Even if it’s not ‘supposed to work this way’, it’s definitely still working.
So, long may insaney-ness reign.
Animaniacs returns on Hulu on Friday, November 5th, 2021.