Into this age of ubiquitous reboots and increasingly sophisticated animation bounds Hulu’s Animaniacs revival, the first moments of its premiere running wild with allusions to its own pedigree. The setup, a nod to Jurassic Park, treats the return of the Warner siblings—Yakko, Wakko, and Dot—as a gobsmacking discovery. “No reruns here,” the cartoon Ellie Sattler says in hushed tones with only slightly more composure than the animated Alan Grant, who faints after seeing the “clean vectored outlines” of the updated Warners. Steven Spielberg, who executive produced the original series, stands in for John Hammond, genially informing the doctors that he brought back the Animaniacs, cartoons that “haven’t been seen on TV since the golden era of animation.”
That crack is very much in the vein of the original series, which was created by Tom Ruegger (who’s not involved in the updated version) and ran from 1993 to 1998. After all, the first incarnation of Animaniacs was, according to its own mythos, actually the second incarnation—basically, a reboot. Wakko, Yakko, and Dot were toon stars from the 1930s (a decade that was part of the actual golden age of U.S. animation) who ran amok and ended up locked away in the Warner water tower. In the ’90s, on Fox Kids (and later, Kids WB), they’d escape and cause mayhem along with their cartoon cohorts like Pinky and the Brain, the Goodfeathers, Slappy Squirrel, and Chicken Boo. Ruegger’s series, which was conceived as a spin-off to the Spielberg-produced Tiny Toons Adventures, was irreverent, dense with references, and yes, zany to the max. It was capable of smart commentary and absurdist non sequiturs in equal measure, though it didn’t remain consistent with either throughout its run. Animaniacs poked fun at its own creation—not just the animators or writers, but the entire industry.
Given the meta-commentary of shows like BoJack Horseman and the colorful surreality of series like The Amazing World Of Gumball, it’s no wonder someone at Hulu thought it was time once again for Animaniacs. And the reboot, which is overseen by Wellesley Wild and Gabe Swarr, comes out guns (or rather, buns) a-blazing. That “golden era” line from the opening takes a potshot at the animated shows that premiered after the original series ended its run, while the revised theme derides the antisocial “trolls” who will say the show is passé, because you should see the Warners’ new contracts. The reboot strives for the same mix of satire and silliness, but the balance is off in the five episodes (of 13) screened for critics. Just as in the original, nothing is off limits for sending up, but this reboot is fairly itching for a fight. Pinky and the Brain, the only other Animaniacs characters to return (sorry, no Chicken Boo), end up mired in a toothless social media riff and some election satire. Russia, girlbosses, streaming services, apps, the overreliance on smartphones, fancy doughnut shops, and the current president all come under the line of parodic fire.
And yet, though the jabs are plentiful, they’re not that fast or furious. Many, like the gun-control segment, are simply what even Dot describes as “thinly veiled allegory.” Again, that echoes the M.O. of the original Animaniacs, which could hardly be accused of writing full-length satire. But where Ruegger and his team were able to combine goofier bits about a megalomaniacal mouse and references to The Day The Clown Cried, often in the same episode, in a “no sacred cows” approach, the new Animaniacs just seems to be scratching names off a list of targets. The perfunctoriness of the commentary is exacerbated by the format of the episodes. The Warner siblings appear, usually to snipe or sing, then Pinky and the Brain scheme. Cut to the Warners doing one final, short segment that takes a swipe at pollsters or third-party candidates. And that’s all, folks. Only one episode of the five available for review introduces new characters: Starbox and Cindy. The former is an alien bent on world domination (who’s also roughly the size of a mouse, whose genes have or haven’t been spliced), while the latter is a child who likes to play tea party with her squishy new toy. But their dynamic is too close to that of Pinky and the Brain, which extends the overall feeling of repetition.
When Animaniacs remembers to have fun, it makes for lively, occasionally impressive, viewing. The show teases fans who might be expecting great, geography-based songs on multiple occasions while also bringing back composers Steve and Julie Bernstein to provide spirited new arrangements. The premiere, one of the stronger episodes, features a toe-tapping number led by Yakko about the entertainment industry’s relentless repurposing of intellectual property. The music remains one of the best features of the show, and the voice cast is in fine form. It’s surprising and gratifying to hear Rob Paulsen (as Yakko), Tress MacNeille (as Dot), and Jess Harnell (as Wakko) again—the Warner siblings sound just like they used to, and the trio still harmonize beautifully. And, despite being made for a “widescreen format,” the Warner siblings mostly look the same, which holds true even when they undergo a Kawaii-style makeover.
But there’s also a danger in the revival’s trying to pick up where the original left off in 1998, with rapid-fire allusions and the desire to send up everything that comes across its path. The focus on topicality that dominates early episodes only undermines the efforts of Wild, Swarr, and the cast. The writers even acknowledge that the animated format doesn’t allow for much timeliness, setting up Yakko for a joke about how, in 2018, the staff isn’t even sure there’ll still be a President Trump in 2020, when the show is scheduled to debut. There are eight other new episodes locked away until Animaniacs premieres on November 20 that might balance out the attempts at commentary with more outlandish antics. In going after so many targets, Animaniacs ends up chasing its own tail.