Monday, May 27, 2013


Animation Nation

After Bugs, Daffy, Sam and Foghorn

By Steve Herte

Animaniacs (WB/Ambllin, 1993-98) Producers: Steven Spielberg, Tom Ruegger. Voices: Tress MacNaille, Rob Paulsen, Jess Harnell, Frank Welker, Maurice LaMarche, Sherri Stoner, John Mariano, Chuck Vennera,  Nathan Ruegger, Laura Mooney, Mary Gross, & Bernadette Peters.

When the heyday of Warner Brothers cartoons ended in the 1960s we were all pretty happy watching the reruns knowing that nothing would compare to the sheer brilliance of comic writing, plots and superb synchronization of sight and sound. And pretty much, nothing did until Stephen Spielberg presented The Animaniacs in 1993. The characters were all new, the situations much shorter and compiled into a variety-style cartoon show knitted together by the two Warner Brothers, Yakko and Wakko and the Warner Sister, Dot. These three madcap monkeys (all evidence points to this as their species) heckle other stodgy characters with Marx Brothers’ style quick humor (Yakko is definitely descended from Groucho) and in many cases, education. Yes, education. There are a few vignettes where Yakko dresses in a cap and gown and performs such amazing feats as singing “All the Countries of the World” to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance.

All of the characters in the cast are drawn with the same three dimensional, fluid motion techniques of the originals and this adds to their charm. Yakko (Paulsen), as I mentioned is the wisenheimer, always quick with a joke, pun or witty remark. Wakko (Harnell) speaks with a Liverpuddlian accent and eats anything in sight but also comes up with many a clever quip. Dot (MacNeille), though she prefers to appear sweet and cute (she has an alter-ego title of Princess Angelina Contessa Louisa Francesca Banana Fanna Bobesca the Third) keeps up with her hyperactive brothers and never misses a punchline.

When Yakko, Wakko and Dot are not running from Ralph, the guard (Frank Welker) at the Warner Brothers Studio Lot, or locked in the water tower (from which they continually escape) we are treated to various other characters, such as The Goodfeathers, three pigeons – Bobby (Mariano), Pesto (Vennera), and Squit (LaMarche) – who worship Martin Scorsese and are obvious spoofs of Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci of Goodfellas (1990). Their faux-mob antics on a New York background are hilarious and push the envelope of ethnic comedy.

Adding a vaudeville note to the cast are Rita the cat (Peters) and Runt the dog (Welker), who always turn the dangerous situations they confront into a song opportunity.

The only characters to spawn a successful spin-off of the show in 1995 are the team of Pinky (Paulsen) and The Brain (LaMarche), two white lab rats who conspire night after night to “take over the world.” Pinky, per the opening song is “insane” but his goofiness perfectly balances the straight-faced Orson Welles-like Brain. My Mom loved this cartoon the best. Once and only once did I see Pinky succeed in his quest; only to be disappointed in the power he acquired.

Slappy the Squirrel (Stoner) is a post-menopausal misanthropic survivor of the Golden Age of cartoons whose only friend is her nephew Skippy (Ruegger). Whoever else is unfortunate enough to appear in her scenes gets the worst of the episode, no matter how big or bad they are. Slappy always has the upper hand and ends each segment with, “Now that’s comedy!” At first she’s hard to take, but once you get the idea of the cartoon you look forward to the next one.

Whenever Mindy (Nancy Cartwright), a toddler who literally gets into everything finds herself in a bind (and that’s every episode) it’s up to Buttons (Welker), a watchdog to extricate her.

A character we don’t get to see often is Chicken Boo, a giant chicken optimistic enough to believe he can be a part of normal society.

Also occasionally we see the short incidents in the life of Katie Ka-Boom (Mooney) a highly-strung teenager who wants things her way or else – KA-BOOM! It’s amazing her long-suffering Mom (Gross) can survive her tantrums.

Lastly, there is the amorous couple, Flavio and Marita, two very funny hippos. There’s something attractive about them despite their great mass. It could be the sexy accents.

I personally treasure the DVDs of the first four seasons on Animaniacs because I love every cartoon and it deserves to be in my collection. The only question is, where are the rest of them?

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