Something funny happened to TV audiences over the 22 years that the Animaniacs were out of the public eye. Streaming virtually killed the idea of designating airtime for cartoons like this, and with it, the sense of whether a show like this is for kids and adults. I used to watch “Animaniacs” on Boston's WB56 as a kid when I came home from school, but now a kid can watch this Hulu version at any time (when all 13 episodes of this revival come out on Friday, November 20). And an adult can watch it too, because even though the show looks like a cartoon, the age designation for meta, cartoonish entertainment barely means anything after the popularity of "Deadpool."
Warner siblings Dot (Tress MacNeille), Wakko (Jess Harnell), and Yakko (Rob Paulsen) return to TV as if they never left, immortalized by their cartoon biology and ready to thrive on a whole batch of jokes at the expense of modern society. From the beginning, this Hulu series goes all-in on being a reboot, using a funny “Jurassic Park” parody to reintroduce Warner siblings Dot, Wakko, and Yakko, while Sam Neill and Laura Dern’s characters are amazed that a scepter-wielding Steven Spielberg has revived the series. A man in a green suit with a button that says “HULU” then simply says, “We are gonna make a FORTUNE with this show,” and the fourth wall topples entirely. The entire first episode in general, which has the Warner siblings running around the studio lot and breaking into a meta song as they do, is all about laying clear the type of transaction that comes from the show: you’re going to help Hulu get richer, and hear lots of jokes about that. But at least you have the Animaniacs back, and they still have bologna in their slacks (though Bill Clinton doesn't play the sax).
For a show like this, which is high on sugar as much as its references to trending topics, it’s a matter of whether the nods are distinctly funny, or just familiar. That’s where the show can run into a few lulls, especially when it seems like pop culture Mad Libs, trying to clown on the many things that it missed. Or, when it seems like it’s taking pot shots (at both hipster donut shops, or slobbish Americans), just for the sake of keeping the show's slight edge. In the world of “Animaniacs,” the best jokes often come in the deep cuts, like one about, of all things, the "Oldboy" remake.
You can’t have “Animaniacs” without “Pinky and the Brain,” and the series returns the saga of the two mice seeking world domination despite their Of Mice and Men dynamic. Even more than the Warner siblings sketches, these segments certainly feel like unabashed continuations of the same series. And even with some peppering of jokes about memes, or references to the movie “Ex Machina,” it’s easy for the show to feel like it’s on autopilot. It's the same thing they do every night, but it's still a segment that pales compared to Dot, Wakko, and Yakko's antics.
In the five episodes provided to press, there’s a new cartoon added to the mix called “Starbox and Cindy,” which is similar, perhaps too much so, to “Pinky and the Brain.” Using an animation style that is different than previous “Animaniacs” episodes (and even recalls the earlier sketch “The Cutening,” seen above), it focuses on a girl named Cindy who befriends a strange lanky, brain-y figure she finds in her yard. That character would be Starbox, and he’s poised to destroy the world, if he can just hit the button from his ship that’s in a giant sandbox. With Cindy talking with the freewheeling nature of a young kid, it’s a fittingly cute addition to Animaniacs, but also seems pretty straight forward.
My biggest laughs with this new version of “Animaniacs,” as someone who likely missed half the references during the show's original run, came from its jokes about hot-button issues. In particular, there are some brief, and not so brief, jokes that are about gun culture, presented with the show’s usual brand of zaniness. There’s a whole sketch about rampant buns (bunnies, and butts) that pays off really well because of the high energy and inspiration. And then a later episode spends a whole Animaniacs segment dunking on Russia and Vladimir Putin, like a brutal, vengeful comedy roast. As with a good deal of jokes in this revival, I imagine that the younger viewers might need to ask the adults about that one.
Five episodes screened for review.