Even the great Steven Spielberg is not above a reboot. While his latest film, West Side Story, will not see theaters until 2021, one of his cult hits from the 1990s finds its way to streaming. Pairing with Hulu and Warner Brothers, the Spielberg-produced Animaniacs lands at a seemingly perfect moment. Healded at the time for its wittiness and Tex Avery style humor. While the show has been gone for decades, the fun-loving series continues to hold a special place in pop culture. Yet that nostalgia raised other questions. While Animaniacs often transcended any one audience group, could it still be effective satire in 2020? The early returns answer with an unequivocal yes, despite the series’ choice to appeal to older audiences over younger viewers.
The new season of Animaniacs bets big on two of its most popular sets of characters. Every episode features at least one sketch featuring the Warners siblings Yakko (Rob Paulsen), Wakko (Jess Harnell), and Dot (Tress MacNeille). The Warners bring back their trademark meta-humor, parodies, and musical numbers as the series’ stars. They often bookend a segment of Pinky and the Brain (Paulson and Maurice LaMarche), reuniting the popular duo with the program that launched their popularity. Periodically over the first season, original characters get their own segments as well.
After years of meta-humor and satire seeping into popular culture, it is okay to question if now is the time for more Animaniacs. After all, the void left by the show was quickly filled by the more adult South Park and Shrek film series. However, in both cases, the turn towards meta-humor was often accompanied by mean-spirited humor. The 2020 Animaniacs avoids this trap, despite taking a far more political and adult tone over the season. Rather than becoming cynical, Animaniacs traffics in the goofy and zany with reckless abandon.
This credit goes to the writing staff, assembled by Family Guy alumnus Wellesley Wild. His staff takes the spirit of the original series and modernizes the humor. That’s not to say the series makes exclusive jokes to Gen Z and Millenials. Instead, it often over relies on humor from the 1990s, sometimes to its detriment. Yet, the foundation of witty and snarky humor also gives Animaniacs an edge when delivering its educational segments. A song on the history of First Ladies and another on the 19th amendment take absurdist turns and deliver on the promise of a show that once taught us state capitals.
Perhaps the most shocking thing to the program’s longtime fans will be the political lean. Trump becomes an icon for ridicule, especially in one sketch depicting him as a Cyclops. The gun control debate also finds itself in the spotlight, complete with a Dragonball Z fight sequence and the Australian government’s help. The writers are fairly open with their politics, and this gives the animated series an extra level of authenticity that turns the parody into meaningful messaging. Unfortunately, the consistency of the series outside of the political humor can be uneven.
For fans of Animaniacs, the reboot will feel like a welcome home. Yet after any remodel, some things feel amiss. The missing fan-favorite characters from the original series is the reboot’s most frustrating aspect. In time, this should correct itself. The political humor is strong, yet many will grow tired after the 2020 election. The Hulu Animaniacs will not reinvent the wheel, but the new writing team and original voice actors clearly have their eye on the prize. Animaniacs should quickly win over audiences and may find itself in the Emmy discussion in no time.