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Hulu's Animaniacs reboot leaves a sour taste trying to comment on the world of today

  • "The new Animaniacs, premiering on Hulu 27 years after it first debuted and in a world where the iconic WB water tower recently got an HBO Max makeover, is well aware of what its preemptive critics might think of it," says Caroline Framke. "In one of the first new episodes, for instance, Warner brothers Yakko (Rob Paulsen), Wakko (Jess Harnell) and their Warner sister Dot (Tress MacNeille) sing a peppy song about Hollywood’s conveyer belt of reboots that ends with them all sitting on a giant pile of cash while the Hulu logo blares behind them in bright neon. In the tweaked opening credits, one of TV’s most enduring theme songs gets pointed lyric updates advising mad nerds to remember that the Animaniacs 'did meta first,' and assuring the audience that this reboot is appropriately 'gender neutral' and 'ethnically diverse' for its new era. (Sure.) So while the 1993 Animaniacs was aggressively self-aware, this 2020 version feels aggressively so, even defiant, as it constantly works to justify its existence." While the original Animaniacs took shots at the entertainment industry, the new version focuses too much on the Trump era. "If you don’t think about it too hard, this Animaniacs reboot at least looks and sounds an awful lot like its predecessor, with its Looney Tunes music cues and elastic shenanigans," says Framke. "Occasionally, it hits on a smart way to update the old sensibility in a way that makes perfect sense, particularly when it switches up the animation style to explore a different world. But more often than not, its focus on how messed up the world is now gives 2020’s Animaniacs more of a sour aftertaste that keeps it from being as effervescent as it once was, and could be."


    • Where is the humor coming from, and who is it for?: "Having watched several episodes, I still have no idea who the target audience of the new Animaniacs is supposed to be. If I had to guess, well, it’s the people making it. This Animaniacs is supposed to be both nostalgic and a new show for a new generation, but it doesn’t succeed at either. The series fails in part because it didn’t update its nostalgia to make sense for fans who were kids then but are adults now. Instead, it’s stuck in the ‘90s. This presents itself in dated references to things like Seinfeld’s 'The dingo ate your baby' and a Cold War-esque view of Russia. During times Animaniacs skews more modern, the satire is not 'biting,'—as Dot herself claims in an early episode—it’s weak. At one point, the characters literally have to turn to the camera and explain that the episode’s storyline about multiplying 'buns' (bunnies) was actually a commentary on guns. I’ve seen better stuff on TikTok—using the Animaniacs."
    • Animaniacs makes a reboot work by treating it like a sequel: "Hollywood is in love with reboots," says  Rafael Motamayor. "The reasons are many, but it’s best to let one Yakko Warner, one of the stars of Hulu’s new reboot of Animaniacs, explain it: “Reboots are symptomatic of a fundamental lack of originality in Hollywood. A creativity crisis fueled by terrified executives clinging to the past like rats to the debris of a sinking ship. Where most reboots resort to replicating what the original did with just slight changes, Animaniacs makes its reboot work by treating it like a sequel. The reboot acknowledges how much things have changed in the last 22 years despite its immortal cartoon characters not changing at all."
    • It feels more like a gimmick than a true revival: "The episodes have their strengths for sure, suggesting that the full series does as well," says John Maher. "For one, it’s all traditionally animated, harkening back to the original series while sleeking up its looks. The design won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for the most part, it works. For another, the iconic main cast is back: Rob Paulsen as Yakko, Jess Harnell as Wakko, Tress MacNeille as Dot, plus Maurice LaMarche and Paulsen again, as the world-domination-seeking lab mice Pinky and the Brain. Their voice-over work is as tight as ever. Spielberg’s attention to detail and general excellence of execution remain. The series has an original orchestrated score, and is packed with original songs. And these characters are still full of potential, lending themselves to nearly endless interpretations. But will the show take full advantage of the base concept’s range and malleability? That remains to be seen. The handful of review episodes hint at a risk-averse series that relies fairly heavily on the nostalgia around its original IP, without entirely remaining true to its spirit. And they streamline the premise to the point where it’s hard not to worry that too much of what made the original unique was cut."
    • The reboot is sharp, hilarious and zany: "Since the script for this episode and the rest of the first season was written back in 2018, they have to take plenty of off-the-wall, wild guesses about what has happened in the last two years," says Ethan Anderton. "It’s superb satire, and it’s only the first great song of this episode. A second one dives into the culture of reboots and remakes, and, I shit you not, those weirdos behind the scenes somehow figured out a way to make a reference to Oldboy. Yes, that’s Oldboy, the super violent South Korean neo-noir action thriller from 2003 that was remade by Spike Lee. This show is great!"
    • Animaniacs revival misses the zany magic of the original: Showrunner Wellesley Wild and the new writers "are clearly aware of what made the old show special, but they’re too wrapped up in bringing the characters into contemporary America to do those things," says Alan Sepinwall.
    • Animaniacs is mired in its meta-commentary: "Given the meta-commentary of shows like BoJack Horseman and the colorful surreality of series like The Amazing World Of Gumball, it’s no wonder someone at Hulu thought it was time once again for Animaniacs," says Danette Chavez. "And the reboot, which is overseen by Wellesley Wild and Gabe Swarr, comes out guns (or rather, buns) a-blazing. That 'golden era' line from the opening takes a potshot at the animated shows that premiered after the original series ended its run, while the revised theme derides the antisocial 'trolls' who will say the show is passé, because you should see the Warners’ new contracts. The reboot strives for the same mix of satire and silliness, but the balance is off in the five episodes (of 13) screened for critics. Just as in the original, nothing is off limits for sending up, but this reboot is fairly itching for a fight. Pinky and the Brain, the only other Animaniacs characters to return (sorry, no Chicken Boo), end up mired in a toothless social media riff and some election satire. Russia, girlbosses, streaming services, apps, the overreliance on smartphones, fancy doughnut shops, and the current president all come under the line of parodic fire."
    • Animaniacs writers tried to make the show as timely as possible, despite writing it in 2018: “We were like, ‘OK, what’s gonna happen? What are the big events coming up? Let’s write to those,'" says showrunner Wellesley Wild. “We were going to be two years behind in terms of anything we could comment on or make fun of. So we wrote to the Olympics and the election. And some of those things, because of the pandemic, did not come to pass, so we’re left holding the torch, I guess you could say.”
    • Wild wanted a revival that's worthy of the original: "Let’s try to imbue every frame with that balance of cartoon violence and satire, parody, meta-humor, musical comedy and sometimes quasi-ish educational content," he says. Now that it is time to share their work with a fan base that is “so particular and rabid about the show,” Wild says: “I’m terrified.”
    • Explaining the "Catch Up Song": “We needed to address the last 22 years — we couldn’t just start with the Warners suddenly being aware of TikTok,” says Wild. “After throwing around a few ideas, we realized that the most efficient and fun way to do that was through a song.”
    • Voice artist Rob Paulsen talks returning to Animaniacs after surviving throat cancer
    • How Animaniacs introduced a generation to comedy, setting the stage for Family Guy and 30 Rock

    TOPICS: Animaniacs, Hulu, Rob Paulsen, Wellesley Wild