Animaniacs: Volume 2 (DVD)

Hellooooo, nurse!

It’s time for another Good Idea, Bad Idea.

Good Idea: Watching the new Animaniacs DVDs surrounded by your family and friends.
Bad Idea: Watching the new Animaniacs DVDs surrounded by a pack of vicious, rabid wolverines.

Sometime in the 1930s, animators created three characters named after their studio, the Warner Brothers, Yakko and Wakko, and their Warner sister, Dot. Somehow, these three escaped from the animation studio and ran amok throughout the Warner lot, wreaking havoc with their relentless comedy. They were finally captured, and locked away in the studio’s iconic water tower, never to be released. But, in the year 1993, escape they did, and the worlds of comedy and animation were never the same.

Animaniacs: Volume 2 features five discs full of short cartoons about the Warners, as well as shorts from the show’s other regulars:

• Pinky and the Brain, two laboratory mice with a plan…to take over the world!

• Slappy the Squirrel, an old, retired, cranky cartoon character teaching her young nephew the finer points of comedy—such as stuffing dynamite down an antagonist’s pants.

• The Goodfeathers, three pigeons with only a slight similarity to Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, and Joe Pesci.

• Rita and Runt, a stray cat and a stray dog who rely on each other to get by while on their search for a good home.

• Mindy and Buttons, a curious little girl who has a knack for innocently walking in and out of dangerous situations and her dog babysitter/bodyguard, who suffers enormous amounts of physical damage while trying to protect her.

It’s fitting that the first episode on this set features the short, “Babblin’ Bijou,” bookended by some fakey interviews with Hollywood old-timers reminiscing about how things used to be. (Yakko and Milton Berle didn’t get along, I hear.) The “Bijou” toon is unapologetically retro, in black and white, with no dialogue or sound effects, just music. It follows the Warners on their raucous visit to a movie theater. The humor in this one, all slapstick and sight gags, is a gentler sort, as opposed to the characters’ usual razor-sharp wit. The idea is, obviously, to create a throwback to an earlier style of cartoon. This is the most in-your-face throwback, but there are others scattered throughout the series. What this says is that Animaniacs has as much to do with the love of animation as it does with laughs.

This love of animation can best be seen in the Warners themselves, with their white-on-black look evoking the monochromatic cartoon characters of days long gone. Not only does this make sense considering their faux “origin,” but it shows that the creators were not only familiar with animation history, but embracing it. The other way the Warners reflect a love of animation is the way absolutely anything can happen in this medium. Their brand of comedy is simply anarchic. They plant kisses on the villain of the day, they paint doors on walls when they need to escape from somewhere, Dot’s “pet” is a giant monster in a tiny box, Wakko constantly stuffs items from backgrounds into his mouth for a quick snack, and so on. No sight gag is too outrageous, since all the creators have to do is draw it.

It’s natural, then, that this anarchic attitude flows right into the plots and dialogue as well. Everyone and anyone are parodied, including Aristotle, Saddam Hussein, Sam Donaldson, Captain Ahab, England’s royal family, and even Satan himself. The Warners are actually pretty nice. It’s just that their role is to diffuse any seriousness they come across. See how friendly and nice they are whenever they meet someone as fun-loving as themselves. But when an authority figure tries to shush them, or when a person starts to get dramatic or frustrated, the Warners will take on him or her with an onslaught of silliness. I love the bit in one episode when the villain tells the Warners, “I don’t want to hear one peep out of you,” only to have them instantly reply, “Peep! Peep! Peep! Peep! Peep!” This absolute disdain for authority is what makes the characters so enjoyable. We all wish we could be this ridiculously rebellious to the authority figures in our own lives.

What can I say that hasn’t already been said about Pinky and the Brain? Not only does the absurdity of two tiny mice trying to take over the world lend itself to big laughs, but when the mice themselves are such great characters with such great interplay between them, you’ve got comedy gold. Some have felt that the Pinky and the Brain shorts from Animaniacs should have been cut from this release and instead included on the DVDs with the spin-off Pinky and the Brain series. I disagree. This box set features Animaniacs episodes as they originally aired, not cut to pieces, which is how it should be. In this context, the Pinky and the Brain shorts are part of the overall formula of the series, and their addition to this mix of characters is a good one.

Movie fans will no doubt flock to the Goodfeathers, with their numerous references to all things Scorsese, plus a bunch other classic film spoofs. A boxing-themed cartoon for the birds has nods to Rocky, Raging Bull, and more. Even when not spoofing Hollywood, such as a World War II adventure or a severe case of the hiccups, the interaction between the three characters usually provides a few solid laughs whenever they show up.

Rita and Runt’s turns in the spotlight are less zany when it comes to laughs. Sure, Rita’s feistiness and Runt’s stupidity do indeed make for some chuckles, but mostly, shorts starring these two are a little more subdued. Instead, they shine not because of the jokes but because of the music. Rita was voiced by Bernadette Peters (The Jerk), who brought with her a considerable singing voice and enough lung power to make Sean Cassidy jealous. See, music was an integral part of Animaniacs, more than most other TV series. Almost every episode has at least one musical number, giving the show more of a “musical comedy” feel rather than just a “cartoon” feel. Even if Rita and Runt slow things down, they’re still worth watching for what Peters does with the writers’ silly lyrics.

Mindy and Buttons are probably the most likely characters to be on the receiving end of viewers’ fast forward trigger fingers. I, however, find these two interesting in the way the writers make the most of a running joke. Basically, Mindy and Buttons are re-using the old “Popeye and Swee’Pea” act. Aside from a few bits of deliciously cruel slapstick inflicted on Buttons, it’s pretty much the same sketch over and over. But, as the series progresses, you can see how the writers take this running gag and start to have some fun with it. Suddenly, we’ve got Mindy and Buttons in France, Mindy and Buttons in space, and prehistoric Mindy and Sabertooth Buttons. These sketches are funny because the writers are taking an established formula and messing with it. And it works because we the viewers have already gotten used to the formula by seeing so much in earlier episodes.

There are a lot of other recurring characters and gags worth noting. Slappy the Squirrel provides some solid laughs, most notably in the episode in which a discarded soft drink can leads to a feud between her and a neighbor. Chicken Boo, a giant chicken that convinces everyone he’s a human despite the lamest costumes imaginable, is a one-note joke, but one that I’ve always liked. I guess he’s a guilty pleasure for me. Some of the show’s biggest laughs come from the random humor of the various 30-second bumpers in between shorts. This is where we get “Mime Time,” in which a mime sustains horrible injuries, “Dot’s Poetry Corner,” which owes a debt to similarly-themed Bullwinkle sketches from years earlier, and “Good Idea, Bad Idea,” featuring Mr. Skullhead, another recipient of painful-looking slapstick.

This set also treats viewers to some of the lesser-known Animaniacs characters. We get the notorious debut of Minerva Mink, who was at one time going to be a regular—look closely and you can see her in the opening number that starts every episode. Her intro toon clearly pays homage to Tex Avery’s classics, as male animals all over the forest become eye-popping drool-heavy morons whenever the sexy mink is around. Another would-be regular is Katie Kaboom, a teenage girl who literally explodes when she gets upset over the littlest thing. It’s too bad that Katie, based on the stepdaughter of one of the writers, wasn’t used more often. She’s a great character, and I imagine a lot more could have been done with her. Also, the Hip Hippos return for a couple of decent outings, especially their trip aboard Noah’s ark, with a very familiar-acting Noah.

One episode of note here is a favorite among many, known by fans as “Animaniac Stew.” For this one episode, the characters all switch places, and end up side by side with those they’re not normally with. Dot and Slappy trade roles, Brain is joined by Mindy, Rita and Pinky team up, and Runt is paired with one of the Goodfeathers. Again, this takes all the show’s well-known (by this point) running jokes and twists them around, making for a wonderful piece of abstract nonsense. Most of the laughs here rely on viewers already aware of who these characters are, and yet I can almost (almost!) imagine seeing some of these pseudo-toons working on a regular basis.

Also notable about this set is that it includes several holiday episodes. There are two Halloween episodes, one Thanksgiving episode, and Disc Five concludes with two Christmas episodes. (You don’t suppose the all-military themed episode was meant for Veterans Day, do you?) These are all great fun, of course, but the Christmas ones are especially interesting. The creators were actually gutsy enough to have the Warners visit the nativity, for their own take on “The Little Drummer Boy.” It’s mostly in good taste, really, unless you’re grossly offended by anything even slightly religious. It strikes a nice balance, maintaining some respect for the Christian origin of the season, with the usual carols about the occasion, like “We Three Kings” and the titular “Little Drummer Boy.” And yet it still adds some trademark Animaniacs craziness, when Wakko’s drum solo turns the manger into a jazzy 1920s style nightclub act. That might sound like a disgusting sacrilege, but it really isn’t when you see it.

It’s the nature of sketch comedy that some sketches are funnier than others. That’s a given. But were there any sketches here that just didn’t plain work at all? For me, there’s only one—”Hollywoodchuck.” It’s about an obnoxious woodchuck that leaves his simple farm home to go to Hollywood and make it big as a cartoon star. Man, talk about an annoying character. Putting him in an uninteresting plot and padding it out with some slapstick just didn’t work. Aside from a semi-decent running gag (“There’s that bear again”), there’s not much to recommend about this one, as it just doesn’t have that madcap Animaniacs energy that the other sketches benefit from.Of course, me saying all this just means my name’s on “the list” now, isn’t it?

Video quality is somewhat hit or miss. At times, the colors and movements seemed flat and drab, while at other times the visuals really spring to life. Part of this might be the show’s age, and part of it might be the fact that more than one animation house was used during production, so some shorts have a crisper look than others. Audio is much better, in a new 5.1 transfer. As noted above, the many musical numbers are an integral part of the show, with a 40-piece orchestra providing the tunes. These DVDs show off the music with clarity, and there are even a few directional effects to enjoy. The only extra is a writers’ roundtable hosted by voice actor Maurice LaMarche, voice of the Brain. It’s a great featurette, with the writers discussing what it was like working on the show, the creative freedom they were given, and how many of the crazy cartoons were inspired by every day occurrences. This is a great bonus, but I can’t help but wonder if even more could have been added to this set, such as commentaries, etc.

These characters are due for a big comeback. The world of pop culture certainly needs them. Just imagine the Warners running loose on the set of American Idol, Pinky and the Brain trying to open the hatch on the Lost island, the Goodfeathers putting their own spin on The Departed, Mindy getting her first pair of heelies with Buttons chasing after her, or the crew of Battlestar Galactica not realizing that Dr. Boo-tar is really a giant chicken. Until that day comes, here’s five discs worth of terrific cartoon comedy in the finest Warner Brothers (and sister!) tradition.

The Verdict

Wheel of Judgment, turn, turn, turn. Tell us the verdict that we have earned. Verdict number six: Elvis still lives—in his music, in our hearts, and in a trailer park outside out of Tyler, Minnesota.

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