In 10 Words or Less
The new cartoon classic finally arrives on DVD
Loves: "Animaniacs," Wakko Warner, cartoons
Likes: Rita and Runt
Dislikes: Mindy, The Hip Hippos
The appeal of the anime and other cartoons being served to kids in the afternoon and on Saturday mornings is understandable, but why can't they have series that are just silly fun, instead of having an attitude or an adventure? Even better, how come they can't come up with a show that parents can enjoy along with their kids. I can't see myself ever sitting down to watch that ridiculous "Loonatics Unleashed" with my daughter. But pop a disc of "Animaniacs" into the DVD player, and I'll stare attentively for as long as she can.
Why is it so enjoyable? A lot of the charm lies in the way the show is constructed. Instead of focusing on one or two stories in a 22-minute episode, "Animaniacs" takes an anthology or variety show tact, cramming two or three shorts into a show, along with interstitials and transitions. The main pieces feature the Warner Brothers, Yakko and Wakko, and the Warner Sister, Dot, a trio of animal-like children of unknown origin. Stars of old Warner Brothers cartoons, they were locked in the WB Studio Water Tower for being too zany, and were stuck there until they made an escape. Having been tucked away on a Hollywood studio, their only frame of reference is movies and TV shows, and their only interest is having fun and causing trouble, which makes for plenty of fun adventures.
The Warners' segments are easily the strongest of the various shorts seen on the show, mainly because of how layered they are. A love of musicals is often seen, along with plenty of references to old shows and movies and a general sense of good-natured fun. It's unlikely a child would get what is meant by references to A Midsummer Night's Dream, Perry Como or the many Tex Avery-inspired women, but with plenty of silliness going on and the influence of years of Disney musicals, kids can enjoy the series, while their parents giggle to themselves.
While the Warners' exploits are mostly nonsensical and mindless fun, there's a great deal of educational material included as well, seen in songs like "Yakko's Universe," or "Wakko's America" which are fun ways to learn (even if "Yakko's World" is a bit outdated.) Even the regular shorts have plenty of things for kids to learn, especially when the Warners go back in time to interact with historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln or Albert Einstein. They may not help anyone pass a test in school, but they will introduce these topics.
The Warners are the most famous of the Animaniacs, but Pinky and the Brain are a close second, and they got their start here, before being spun off into their own series. Once you get past those two groups, the quality of the characters drops off a bit. Rita and Runt provide some Broadway influence to the show, with Bernadette Peters providing Rita's voice, while the Goodfeathers, a group of Italian pigeons, are a cute, if repetitive parody of Martin Scorcese's classic film. The show displays its classic influences when cartoon animal violence gets a tribute in the form of Slappy, an old-school squirrel with a taste for explosives, and the slapstick of Mindy and Button recalls old Tom and Jerry cartoons.
In between the main shorts are those quick interstitials that help move the show along. Though they aren't on-screen for very long, they are sometimes funnier than the shorts, as oddball characters like Mr. Skullhead and Dr. Scratchansniff get in and out quickly, cracking their jokes before outliving their welcome. If only the same thing could be said about the Hip Hippos, who are good only for a one-note eurotrash joke, and Chicken Boo, which is a bit of a bizarre concept about a human-sized chicken. After one of two segments with them, you'll fight the urge to hit fastforward when they appear.
The first 25 episodes of "Animaniacs" are collected on five DVDs, which are delivered in a handsome, "Steven Spielberg Presents"-branded package. The discs are housed in a four-panel digipak, with three trays, and four of the discs are overlapped, ala the The Pink Panther collection. The digipak, which has an episode breakdown, comes in a slipcase, that's designed with matte silver foil and embossed, spot glossy coating. It's really a nice-looking set, and more adult-oriented in design than one might expect. The discs have static, anamorphic widescreen main menus, with options to play all episodes, select individual shows, view special features and adjust languages. Language choices include English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 and Portuguese tracks, along with French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles, as well as closed captioning. Episode selection menus have text lists of shows.
Though it's called Volume 1, the back of the packaging describes it as the first season. That's different than Volume 1 of "Pinky and the Brain", which is referred to as 22 specially chosen episodes. Proceed with caution, if that matters to you.
The full-frame transfers on these episodes are surprisingly solid for traditional animation, with less of the black-outline pixelation seen in other cartoons on DVD. The colors seem a bit dull in select spots, but overall, they are quite good. The only real downside as far as the video goes is the amount of obvious dirt and damage seen throughout the set, in the form of specks and scratches. It's not horrendous, but it's not minimal either, and anyone who cares about picture quality is bound to notice it again and again.
While the image may not be top-notch, the sound is excellent, with Warner Brothers providing an impressively remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Music enhancement and some occasional sound effects are fed to the sides and rear speakers, while the center speaker handles the dialogue and main music chores. The mix is strong and clear, and allows all the gags and songs to be heard cleanly, including the opening titles variants.
Despite its status as a cult favorite, "Animaniacs" gets only one extra on this set, a 29-minute featurette titled "Animaniacs Live!" Via satellite, Maurice LaMarche, the voice of the Brain, interviews several of the show's voices and creators, including Rob Paulsen (Yakko), Jess Harnell (Wakko), Tress MacNeille (Dot), Sherri Stoner (Slappy), voice director Andrea Romano and composers Steven and Julie Bernstein, grilling them on the history of the show. It feels a lot like a panel you'd catch at a comic convention, with a very laid-back, friendly tone. Though longer commentaries with each talent would have been more informative, this is a nice treat for fans of the show, and thanks to the personalities of those involved, it's entertaining to boot. There are also six trailers on the final disc.
Annoyingly, each disc lists special feautres on the main menu, only to tell you they are found on another disc. Even disc three, which holds the only extra, says look at the other discs. Bleh.
The Bottom Line
A "Looney Tunes" for a new generation, "Animaniacs" combined surrealism, music, education and a heaping helping of pop-culture references, with a silly, fun sense of humor, to create a series that allowed you to just sit back and enjoy, whether you were an adult or a kid. There hasn't been anything like it since, which makes this DVD set so welcome. The episodes are in very nice shape, with the exception of the need for a clean-up on the dirt, and the sole extra was made for fans of the show, so if you enjoy the series, it's a worthwhile purchase, if a bit disappointing in terms of bonus features and video quality. The uninitiated should try a rental first, as the show's sense of humor can be unusual, but if you like old-school Bugs Bunny, this is a great update on the screwball genre of cartoons.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.