Animaniacs: Volume 3

This DVD’s really a chicken, I tell ya! A giant chicken!

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

Good Idea: Laughing hysterically while watching Animaniacs on DVD.
Bad Idea: Laughing hysterically while watching Blue Velvet on DVD.

The legend goes that back in the 1930s, animators created three characters, the Warner brothers and their sister Dot. These three escaped from the animation studio and ran amok on the Warner lot, destroying everything in sight with their out-of-control comedy. They were eventually captured and locked inside the famous Warner Brothers water tower. There they remained until the early Â’90s, when they escaped and Animaniacs was born.

Alongside the Warners’ adventures are those of a few other familiar faces:

• Pinky and the Brain—prior to spinning off into their own series, these two lab mice entertained with their many plans to…take over the world!

• The Goodfeathers—three pigeons who bear a shocking similarity to characters from a certain Martin Scorcese film.

• Mindy and Buttons—an adventurous toddler who consistently wanders into danger, and her loyal dog who experiences unbelievable pain while trying to rescue her.

• Slappy the Squirrel—an elderly, retired, and very cranky cartoon character teaching her nephew the finer points of comedy, such as anvils and explosions.

• Rita and Runt—a songstress cat and a dim-bulb dog in search of a home, although each “home” they find usually means danger of some kind.

I’ve always believed that although Animaniacs usually gets labeled as a kids show, its true audience has always been older viewers, ones that are savvy enough to get all the inside jokes and pop culture references. The various Hollywood spoofs will likely fly over the heads of the 10-and-under set, but for high schoolers and the college crowd, Animaniacs is a must-see if you love to laugh. This is rapid-fire comedy, with jokes and visual gags flying at you about every 30 seconds, so if one joke doesn’t work for you, there’s not a long wait for the next one.

With the show being more than 10 years old now (can you believe it?), the obvious question to be asked is, “Is it dated?” In some ways, yes. But more often than not, the comedy holds up quite well. For example, viewers might groan when the whole Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding thing gets referenced in one cartoon, but then, minutes later, the same cartoon namedrops writer Gertrude Stein and pianist Vladimir Horowitz. So anyone and anything is a target for parody in the world of Animaniacs.

With the Warner siblings, the writers have created three characters that can be put in any situation, only to have them run amok with their particular brand of lunacy. The Warners’ purpose is to diffuse any seriousness they come across, and they do it wonderfully. Whether it’s in wisecracks, absurd visuals, or just plain weirdness, it’s always a delight when they cut loose on the villain du jour. I think we all wish we could similarly diffuse seriousness in our own lives. We’d much rather goof off and laugh and play around than go to work or pay bills, and the Warners’ craziness speaks to this part of ourselves.

If you dig the Goodfeathers, you’re in luck, because they’re in almost every episode on disc four of this five-disc set, and in plenty of other episodes as well. We get closer looks into their world, especially in meeting their female counterparts, the Girlfeathers. Even better, the Italian-American pigeons get their musical freak on, with a beautifully nonsensical take-off on Fiddler on the Roof. If you can’t follow the plot, that’s OK; just be coo.

If you dig Slappy the Squirrel, you’re also in luck, because she’s in almost every episode on disc five, and in plenty of other episodes as well. Some of her best moments here are her appearance at Woodstock, which leads to an Abbott and Costello routine, and her trip to New York in the 1950s, where she debunks the Stanislavski method of acting (see, what little kid is going to understand this cartoon?). Although Slappy’s comedy isn’t quite as manic as the others, she gets in her share of winning one-liners.

This set contains the final group of episodes that aired on the Fox Network on weekdays, and the first few episodes that aired after the show made the jump to the brand-new WB Network, where it aired on Saturday mornings. On DVD, the change isn’t really noticeable except for one thing: mega-popular characters Pinky and the Brain appear a lot less frequently than they did in the Volume One and Volume Two DVDs, because, by this time, the characters were being prepped for their own prime-time spin-off. Their few appearances here are notable, though, especially “Meet John Brain,” in which the big cheese does the obvious and runs for president, opening the door for political spoofs a-plenty.

Mindy and Buttons are probably the characters that will have viewers reaching for their remote controls to fast forward. I, however, still appreciate how the writers have taken what is essentially the same sketch over and over, and twisted that formula around by placing it in different environments. This time around, there’s mermaid Mindy and SuperMindy, but the best is Mindy and Buttons set in France, with the entire cartoon in French with no subtitles (Buttons: “Le Woof!”). This one actually spoofs the classic 1956 French film The Red Balloon, with the kid from that movie making a little cameo as Buttons gets trampled on by some nuns. It’s just another example of a joke that kids are never going to get, but that will have the film majors in the audience nodding with amusement.

Rita and Runt are the other characters that often get pegged by fans as “not as funny.” I won’t disagree, but I say these two are likable not so much for the laughs but the music. Bernadette Peters (The Jerk) provided Rita’s voice; with it, she gave her considerable singing talent to the writers’ often screwy lyrics. Animaniacs could easily be described as musical comedy, with a full orchestra providing the score and goofy, sarcastic song and dance numbers in each episode.

Some of the most vicious satire in this series was reserved for taking on other kid shows that aired at the time (Slappy: “Cartoon characters never really die. Except for Bonkers”). “Baloney and Friends” is appropriately cruel to Barney, and “Super Strong Warner Siblings” does an admirable job at pointing out everything that was stupid about Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Plus, Elmyra, the endlessly annoying character from Tiny Toon Adventures, shows up in one episode, in which she finally gets the punishment she so richly deserves.

The creators continue to display a love of animation and animation history in this series. “Ragamuffins” is allegedly one of the Warners’ “lost” cartoons from the 1930s, and is animated in that style, in black-and-white, and accompanied only by music. The retro approach works nicely, and this ‘toon is as fun and engaging as any of the others. “Of Course You Know This Means Warners” is made in the style of a 1940s WWII-era cartoon, with characters encouraging viewers to help with the war effort. Finally, “The Flame Returns,” plays around with animating a flame on the end of a candle as if it’s a character, giving animators a chance to flex their muscles a little and try something different.

But the standout episode on this set—and reason numero uno why you want to buy it—is the “65th Anniversary Spectacular.” Again working under the assumption that these characters have been around since the early 1930s, this episode traces their history throughout the years, from their creation and early films, to their surprise appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and at the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, all wrapped up in a spoof of cheesy TV award shows. Overall, it’s a brilliant piece of comedy and one of the best episodes—if not the best.

On the other hand, that annoying woodchuck from Volume Two shows up again in this one, with two appearances. First he’s depicted as an obnoxious Hollywood director, and then as a nuisance during a Dr. Seuss parody. He’s just a bothersome, unlikable character, and the writers would have been better off cutting their losses with this one.

The picture quality here is a little hit or miss. More than one animation house worked on the series, which led to some inconsistencies in the fluidity and detail of the visuals. Similarly, some scenes on these DVDs are marred with white flecks during darker moments. At other times, though, the colors are bright and vibrant. The audio comes in dual 5.1 and 2.0 tracks, and they both sound fine, with music and dialogue coming forth with clarity.

This time around, we’re treated to two featurettes. The first is a roundtable discussion with the show’s original character designers, art directors, and storyboard artists, who go over their thoughts on the look of the characters, and the challenges of animated such an outrageous show. The second featurette is about the show’s music, with a special tribute to late composer Richard Stone. These are both great featurettes, and yet I’m still left wanting more, such as commentaries, etc.

Comedy is subjective, I know. One person’s “hilarious” is another person’s “stupid.” That being said, I feel anyone can find something to laugh at in Animaniacs. This is madcap comedy at its madcappiest. Not guilty.

The Verdict

“Okay, I love you, bye-bye!”

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