If you have a Netflix subscription (and seriously, who doesn’t) then you’ve just been blessed with 99 episodes of Animaniacs; one of Steven Spielberg’s cartoons from the 90s. Yeah, the movie director did a couple of cartoons for Warner Brothers. Weird, right?
Animaniacs was basically the 90s version of the Looney Tunes, so much so, that they exist in the same world and frequently crossed paths. It featured a wide variety of characters, from talking animals to people, but focused mainly on Yakko, Wakko, and Dot– three anthropomorphic puppy-like children drawn in a fashion that parodied early animation. They frequently claim to be the Warner brothers and the Warner sister and are so zany that they were locked in the Warner Brothers studio water tower until they eventually broke out in the 90s. “And now you know the plot,” so exclaims the theme song!
I loved Animaniacs as a kid, along with the rest of Spielberg’s cartoons. (My mother… not so much. Apparently they made my sister and I hyper children). That was over 20 years ago though; are these cartoons still good or relevant? It depends on how you examine them.
As a kid, I just enjoyed the quick movements, flashy colors, funny noises, and slapstick humor. It’s the same reason everyone enjoyed Looney Tunes or Tom & Jerry as a kid. But when you go back and reexamine the shows, there’s a lot more going on than what I ever thought.
Let’s step back for a second and take a look at the history of children’s television shows before we touch upon what was going on in Spielberg cartoons. In the 80s, there was a cartoon boom that exploded, which was fueled by toy sales. Toys would get created and then someone would made a show about them in order to sell the toys. Some went so far as to kill of characters in order to introduce others for a new toy line. As you could imagine, this resulted in some pretty crappy writing, hyper-violence, gender role reinforcement, and fairly terrible animation quality. By the 90s, the FCC had had enough and passed the Children’s Television Act of 1990. It not only mandated that television shows had to serve the educational and informational needs of children, but also mandated how often this had to occur. That only got worse by 1996, which mandated that there be specific programs to reinforce children.
To summarize– 80s cartoons were a shameless advertising scheme to sell toys, and as a result, the FCC went overboard and mandated strict and rigid rules for how shows were done after 1990. Got it? Good! Let’s move on!
While the regulations meant well, it did put a major creative stressor on writers. Instead of doing what they’d like, they were forced to provide educational segments in shows and stay within the merits of the legislation. Spielberg and his writers didn’t care for it much and used the shows as a means to provide commentary on the matter. Sure, they stayed within the regulations by doing educational segments (chances are, you’ve seen that state capital song), but you can tell they were bitter about it. There are frequently jokes that take shots at the network censors, media watch dogs, and Congressional hearings. Those jokes often ended with physical harm on the end of FCC people. Every time some new regulation came out, there was an episode that followed the rules and then somehow managed to give the middle finger all at the same time.
By the time 1996 rolled around, they created Histeria!; a show all about teaching “history” through attention-grabbing gags and humor in order to meet the FCC’s new rules. They also went a little overboard with material that was so extremely accurate and offensive that I have a difficult time finding anything about it. If you get a chance, try to find the My Buddy Stalin skit. Go ahead, try not to gasp over how deeply offensive it is. It’s also hilarious.
To answer the overall question though– is Animaniacs still good — the the answer is yes. It’s fun and zany humor for kids that will keep them interested. The animation quality is superb. Oh, and the musical scores are some of the best around; adding emotional impact and timing that gives the comedic tone a whole other level. If you’re an adult, you’ll actually understand the jokes now and they’ll have you roaring. Keep your phone handy though, because even I don’t understand every reference.
There was one skit I was watching the other day that followed Wakko around the studio, so we could get a view into what he does on a daily basis. He stops by Martha Graham’s dance studio to get tips on how to spice up running into a wall for a future segment. She then proceeds to theatrically emote and slam into a wall, say that it didn’t feel right, and do it again. I didn’t get it; I have no idea who she is. Look it up– interpretive dancer said to be the “Picasso of the art form.” Get it. I laughed for a good 2 minutes afterward. It’s stuff like that.
Occasionally, you can tell that it’s dated, as there are references to 90s pop culture that, at the time, were relevant. A three minute rendition parodying the Macarena music video would have been completely funny and relevant when the episode aired. That song was popular when I was in 4th grade, and has since then faded into obscurity. Your kids probably won’t get it.
Otherwise, it’s a damn good show, as are the other Spielberg cartoons. Check them out and show then to your kids.