The foundations of animated comedy are simple: memorable character animation, an emphasis on visual storytelling, and impeccable comic timing. There’s more to it, of course, as any animation professional would tell you — there are 12 basic principles of animation, after all. But by and large, the comedic cartoon shorts produced by Disney, Warner Bros., and the like during the Golden Age of American animation achieved classic status by dropping iconic characters with clear-cut motivations into loony but easily understood stories that unspool visually over the course of seven gag-packed minutes. This formula made for perfect comedy.
The vast majority of these shorts have a timeless feel today, precisely because their basic premise was so tight. Whereas later cartoon comedies, including Hanna-Barbera’s The Flintstones, turned to talky live-action sitcoms for structure, the great shorts were inspired by silent films from the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. They do wonderful things with words and music, of course. In fact, employing music from the catalogs owned by their respective studios was fundamental to the generation of cartoon shorts in the Golden Age. But the comedy isn’t solely dependent on banter. It’s oozing out of every still. The gags just never get old.
It took the American animation industry until the 1990s to come back from limited animation sitcoms and adventure shows to the creator-driven humor of the classic theatrical shorts. But when it did, it launched a generation of contemporary classics that thrived by reimagining old styles and structures, from The Adventures of Ren & Stimpy to Dexter’s Laboratory and the show that was arguably the apotheosis of this looking-forward-by-looking-back model: Animaniacs, which returns this week to Hulu under new showrunner Wellesley Wild, after 22 years off the air.
In the show’s original 1990s run on Fox Kids, the Warner brothers, their sister Dot, and their many animated accomplices were, as they once put it, the very model of cartoon individuals, especially in the Looney Tunes style. They were witty and whimsical, self-aware and irreverent, quick with a quip and quicker with a gag. Segments in the anthological series emphasized that fast pace: They sometimes ran toward the seven-minute mark, but most clocked in only at two or three minutes, using just enough time and plot to get the right jokes across, and no more.
The show’s executive producer, Steven Spielberg, and its creator, Tom Ruegger, learned a lot from the old masters of animation at the studio that gave the Warners their names. The DNA of the cartoons that Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, and many a fellow screwball genius produced at the studio once called Termite Terrace was all present in the original Animaniacs, albeit with an updated sensibility, including more recent cultural references and a willingness to more brazenly skewer the issues du jour. Plus, this was no Tiny Toon Adventures, built on the back of the preexisting Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies intellectual property. It was an ideal spiritual successor instead: visual and verbal comedy willing to take aim at pretty much anything.
The question surrounding the new batch of Animaniacs cartoons was always whether a revival could recapture that same magic. The answer, after viewing the five screeners provided to the media in advance of the show’s Nov. 20 release, is the same as it was when the reboot was first announced: “We’ll see.”
The episodes have their strengths for sure, suggesting that the full series does as well. For one, it’s all traditionally animated, harkening back to the original series while sleeking up its looks. The design won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for the most part, it works. For another, the iconic main cast is back: Rob Paulsen as Yakko, Jess Harnell as Wakko, Tress MacNeille as Dot, plus Maurice LaMarche and Paulsen again, as the world-domination-seeking lab mice Pinky and the Brain. Their voice-over work is as tight as ever. Spielberg’s attention to detail and general excellence of execution remain. The series has an original orchestrated score, and is packed with original songs. And these characters are still full of potential, lending themselves to nearly endless interpretations.
But will the show take full advantage of the base concept’s range and malleability? That remains to be seen. The handful of review episodes hint at a risk-averse series that relies fairly heavily on the nostalgia around its original IP, without entirely remaining true to its spirit. And they streamline the premise to the point where it’s hard not to worry that too much of what made the original unique was cut.
The original run of Animaniacs was effectively Looney Tunes for ’90s kids, and that’s exactly what worked about it. A good anthology show, and especially an animated one in the vein of Looney Tunes, should take chances and experiment. Animaniacs did exactly that. It was teeming with memorable characters and concepts, including a recurring segment starring three talking pigeons that was dedicated entirely to roasting Martin Scorsese films; poetic shorts featuring an anthropomorphized candle flame who witnessed pivotal events in American history; and Bernadette Peters as a snarky singing cat. Would the child segment of its all-ages audience get all the references to, say Freudian psychologists singing Harry Belafonte numbers, or sexual acts with iconic Minneapolis musicians? Hell no. Would those gags make everyone watching laugh anyway? Hell yes.
The review episodes of the revival, on the other hand, don’t crackle with manic energy like the original, or the Looney Tunes before it. The side characters are largely gone, from Slappy Squirrel to Rita and Runt (although Dr. Scratchansniff shows up in the opening sequence and briefly in one segment, so here’s hoping). And while the updated theme song teases a “brand-new cast who tested well in focus-group research,” every single segment in the screeners but one — the newcomer “Starbox and Cindy,” about a tiny alien trying to escape the clutches of a well-meaning little girl who thinks he’s her toy — sticks with either the Warners or Pinky and the Brain.
While the Pinky and the Brain review shorts are, by and large, sharp modern takes on the characters and their motivations, the Warner kids feel too tame. In the original run, these characters had an absolute ball making a mess of everything around them, and that was upon being released from a water tower after six decades. But now, the way the world has changed over the past 22 years seems to torment them more than they torment that world. And the experiments they’re put through here, as when the animators use shonen anime-style animation in one short, and chibi-style animation over a K-pop song in another, have their charm, but they feel more like gimmicks than sharp new spins on the series — intended proof that Animaniacs is modern now.
Still, the show can be funny, and when the laughs come, they’re genuinely rewarding. The Warners’ self-referentiality always works, as in the premiere, which features a song about Hollywood rebooting the popular programs of yore for a quick influx of cash. But in the opening episodes, at least, the laughs still come at a quarter of the rate of the original.
In some ways, that’s to be expected. Cartoons haven’t been made like Animaniacs since the end of the anthology series mini-trend in the 1990s. But in the ’90s, cartoons hadn’t been made like Looney Tunes since the pivot from theater to television killed the animated short in the 1960s. The creatives behind the original run of the series knew that in the battle between classic and contemporary, classic nearly always wins. Long after K-pop becomes uncool music someone’s parents listen to, a falling anvil will still be instantly recognizable and resonant. A familiar gimmick just isn’t the same thing as a good, solid gag.