‘Animaniacs’ is back, still zany and totally insane-y

By Dave Itkoff

At the end of the first new “Animaniacs” episode in more than 20 years, Yakko Warner, a vaguely anthropomorphic cartoon creature with beaming eyes and floppy ears, stands in front of a blank screen and solemnly addresses the audience.

“Reboots are symptomatic of a fundamental lack of originality in Hollywood,” Yakko declares, “a creativity crisis fueled by terrified executives clinging to the past like rats to the debris of a sinking ship.”

His sister, Dot, joins in the scolding of the entertainment industry. “Have you no shame?” she asks.

At this moment, Yakko, Dot and their brother, Wakko, are presented with a check for $100 billion and a mountainous pile of money that spells out Hulu.

Wakko — who, like his siblings, is ostentatiously dressed in Hulu gear — goes onto explain, “When we sell out, we know we’re selling out, so it’s cool.”

The Warners have not been seen in new installments of their antic, self-referential cartoon series since the original 1990s run of “Animaniacs,” when they and their co-stars barnstormed through historical lampoons and pop-cultural parodies while bumping elbows with the likes of Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Bill Clinton.

Now, Hulu is bringing back the series — which was itself a throwback to the rebellious sensibility of classic Warner Bros. cartoons from the 1940s and ’50s — in new episodes that will be released on Friday.

This “Animaniacs” revival features its original voice actors playing Yakko, Wakko and Dot (as well as supporting characters like the mismatched mouse duo Pinky and the Brain) in adventures that have been updated for an era of superhero blockbusters, social media influencers and online trolls.

All of these elements would seem more than sufficient for “Animaniacs” to pick up where it left off. But the creators of the new episodes said it has been a particular challenge for them to recapture its unique mixture of comedy styles while aiming simultaneously for a younger audience unfamiliar with the show and for older viewers who grew up on it.

“One of our goals was to make a show worthy of the first one,” said Wellesley Wild, an “Animaniacs” co-showrunner and executive producer. “Let’s try to imbue every frame with that balance of cartoon violence and satire, parody, metahumor, musical comedy and sometimes quasi-ish educational content.”

Now that it is time to share their work with a fan base that is “so particular and rabid about the show,” Wild said, “I’m terrified.”

For the principal “Animaniacs” voice actors, there is far less tension about returning to these long dormant cartoon roles. “We’ve become a really happy part of people’s memories,” said Jess Harnell, who plays the diminutive Wakko Warner. “You can’t put a price on that.”

He and his co-stars can remember a time, in the late 1980s, when children’s animation was dominated by TV cartoons that were essentially brand extensions for action figures and other toy lines.

Rob Paulsen, the voice actor who plays the characters Yakko and Pinky, said he could still remember practicing for one of his earliest assignments on the show, a rapid-fire song about global geography set to the tune of “The Mexican Hat Dance.”

“I remember listening to my little Walkman, sitting next to my wife,” Paulsen recalled. “She said, ‘What is that?’ I sung it for her and she said, ‘Is that every country in the world?’ I said, ‘Pretty damn close.’”

To Paulsen, this segment was an early, encouraging bellwether of the show’s freewheeling comic sensibilities. “When the first thing you get is, ‘Tunisia, Morocco, Uganda, Angola, Zimbabwe, Djibouti, Botswana,’ you just go, my God,” he said.

Across 99 episodes that aired from 1993 to 1998 and a direct-to-video special released in 1999, “Animaniacs” was free to indulge its own whims and tastes, immersing its characters in pastiches of “Goodfellas,” “Apocalypse Now” and “The Day the Clown Cried” without straying from its kid-friendly ethos.

“It was social satire in a variety-show mask,” Harnell said. “You can make fun of that stuff on ‘Saturday Night Live’ at 11:30 at night for adults. But how cool is it to poke at it for 8-year-olds and have them get it?”

Eventually “Animaniacs” ran its course and the people who made it moved on to other projects.

“It was a slow decompression,” said Maurice LaMarche, who plays the megalomaniacal Brain. As with other animated shows he has made, LaMarche said, there was a period, as the voice actors worked on the final batch episodes, when they knew the show was ending but hoped it might somehow continue. Then, he said “a deep appreciation for what you’ve got and what you’ve done begins to set in, as well as for the people you’ve worked with.” (He called this process the “Toon Stages of Grief, but with fewer stages because there are fewer frames per second.”)

Harnell added that they were eager to participate, provided that the new “Animaniacs” treated the series “respectfully and reverently — we love these little characters as much as the people out there love them.”

The “Animaniacs” revival also hired new staff members like Wild, a longtime writer and producer on “Family Guy.”

Though that pedigree might seem to foretell a crass deconstruction of “Animaniacs,” Wild said his approach was not to drastically update the show or throw away its fundamental attributes. “There’s lightning in a bottle here,” he said, “and the first thing I’m going to do is keep that lightning in the bottle, vigilantly.”

Gabe Swarr, a co-showrunner and co-executive producer who oversees the show’s animation, said that character designs on the new episodes had been streamlined while remaining faithful to their original aesthetics.

“If you just remove one hair, that’s one less hair that everybody has to draw 1,000 times,” said Swarr, who has previously worked on shows like “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Kung Fu Panda” and “The Penguins of Madagascar.” (He estimated that 90% to 95% of the animation on the new “Animaniacs” was drawn by hand.)

LaMarche said that he and his “Animaniacs” co-stars have embraced the new producers and found them to be open and mindful collaborators.

Describing an early voice-recording session that he had with Wild, LaMarche said, “There was onetime that I piped up, when I felt Brain was being particularly callous, beyond what was the norm even for his legendary, curmudgeonly self.”

After feeling that his recommendation was heard, LaMarche said, “I’ve never felt the need to say anything again, because Wellesley and his creative team honestly get who Pinky and the Brain are.”

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