The new cartoon classic finally arrives on DVD
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in songs like "Yakko's Universe," or "Wakko's America" which are fun ways to learn (even if "Yakko's World" is a bit outdated.)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.
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.
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.
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