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Animaniacs was the second animated series produced by the collaboration of Steven Spielberg and Warner Bros. Animation during the animation renaissance of the 1990s. The studio's first series, Tiny Toon Adventures, had proved to be a big hit among younger viewing audiences, and it had attracted a sizable number of adult viewers as well. Tiny Toon Adventures had drawn heavily from the classic Termite Terrace cartoons of old for inspiration, as well as plots and characterization. The modern Warner Bros. writers and animators used the experience gained from the previous series to create brand new animated characters that were cast in the mold of Tex Avery's creations, but were not slavish imitations.
The Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister)
This show focused around the adventures, or more accurately, misadventures of the Warner Bros. (Yakko and Wakko Warner) and the Warner Sister (Dot), who claim to be the stars of some of the early Warner Bros. cartoons, but were so awful that the studio execs locked them away in the water tower at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California. They were joined by a host of other zany characters. Animaniacs episodes were traditionally composed of three short mini-episodes, each starring a different set of characters.
The description of the Warners is a tongue-in-cheek homage to Bosko, Warner Bros.' first cartoon character, whose cartoons were not highly regarded by many people.
The red-nosed Warner siblings bear a striking resemblance to the portrayals of Bosko and his girlfriend Honey in a 1990 episode of Tiny Toon Adventures, also created by Steven Spielberg. Afraid that the portrayals of Bosko and Honey might be deemed controversial, they were changed to anthropomorphic doglike characters, and that episode served as the "bridge" between Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs. Originally the Warners were intended to be ducks, but producer Tom Ruegger realized they'd been done to death by Disney (see DuckTales), so he made them indeterminate children. He also modeled their personalities a bit after his three sons (who all did voices on the series at one time or another).
Animaniacs introduced a number of characters, including:
- Yakko, Wakko, and Dot - The "Warner Brothers" (and the Warner Sister, too!), voiced by Rob Paulsen, Jess Harnell , and Tress MacNeille
- Pinky and the Brain, voiced by Rob Paulsen and Maurice LaMarche
- Slappy Squirrel, an aging cartoon star voiced by Sherri Stoner
- Skippy Squirrel, Slappy's young nephew whose personality was polar opposite to that of his aunt.
- Goodfeathers - a trio of cartoon pigeons, voiced by Maurice LaMarche, John Mariano and Chick Vennera , spoofing characters from the movie Goodfellas
- Rita and Runt - a singing cat (voiced by actress Bernadette Peters), and a loyal but stupid dog (voiced by actor Frank Welker)
- Buttons and Mindy - a heroic German shepherd dog, and an accident-prone baby, voiced by Nancy Cartwright
- Minerva Mink - an incredibly sexy mink who makes every male creature around go into conniptions.
- Katie Ka-Boom - an angsty teenage girl who literally explodes with rage when her parents embarrass her.
- Flavio and Marita - the Hip Hippos, voiced by Frank Welker and Tress MacNeille, an obese yet trendy married hippo couple.
- Chicken Boo - A giant chicken who is amazingly successful at imitating humans of great importance (such as the President)
- Mr. Director - a caricature of Jerry Lewis who first appears in "Hello Nice Warners". In later episodes he parodies Marlon Brando in Apocolypse Now and appears as a loud birthday clown who scares Mr. Plotz and Wakko. Voiced by Paul Rugg.
- The Flame - a candle flame who presides over important historical writings like Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and Longfellow's "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere". Voice of Cody Ruegger.
- Charlton Chipmunk - He came to Hollywood looking for stardom and took his lumps in a nature documentary. Later he directed Slappy in a cartoon about trying to crack a walnut (probably inspired by a classic short about a squirrel unsuccessfully trying to break open a coconut) and played the role of the fish in a Cat in the Hat parody. He has people who annoy him write their names down in a book and promises, when he becomes famous, not to like them.
- Dr. Otto Scratchansniff - the Austrian-accented studio psychiatrist who tries to understand the Warners
- Thaddeus Plotz - the CEO of the Warner Bros. Studios cartoon enterprise
- Hello Nurse - The studio nurse over whom Yakko and Wakko obsessed.
- Mr. Skullhead - a mobile yet mute skeleton, related to the skullhead bow that the character Elmyra Duff wears on Tiny Toon Adventures.
- The Mime - a nameless Mime who appeared in brief clips, demonstrating some miming technique, always ending with a humorous (and generally painful) result.
- Ralph - a security guard usually charged with recapturing the Warners and securing them in the water tower
The comedy of Animaniacs was a broad mix of old-fashioned wit, slapstick, pop culture references, and cartoon wackiness. The show also featured a number of educational segments that covered subjects from history to math to geography. These educational segments, while simplistic in nature, were at a considerably more advanced level than in such children's shows as Sesame Street; in fact, most adults could probably learn something from the show's explanations of world geography, the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan, or the Panama canal.
While episodes of the show did have their share of flops ("Mr. Skullhead," "Hip Hippos"), a surprisingly high number of well-written, outrageously funny cartoons were aired during the series, as the new madcap Warner Bros. animators merrily poked fun at everything and everyone, including their own fans ("The Please Please Pleese Get A Life Foundation").
While the show was very popular among younger viewers (the target demographic for Warner Bros.' TV cartoons), a great deal of the show's sly, subversive humor was definitely aimed at an adult audience. In fact, one character, Minerva Mink, was soon deemphasized as a feature character on account that her featured episodes were considered too sexually suggestive for the show's intended timeslot. Adults responded in droves, giving the show cult-hit status and leading to one of the first Internet-based fandom cultures. During the show's prime, the Internet newsgroup alt.tv.animaniacs was an active, popular gathering place for fans of the show (most of whom were definitely adults) to discuss the latest antics of the Warner Brothers and the Warner Sister. The online popularity of the show did not go unnoticed by the show's producers, and several of the most active participants on the newsgroup were invited to the Warner Bros. Animation studios for informal get-togethers.
Animaniacs premiered on September 13, 1993. New episodes of the show were aired during the 1993 through 1996 seasons, and episodes of the show were rerun in syndication for several years after production of new episodes ceased. One feature-length direct-to-video Animaniacs movie, Wakko's Wish, was released on VHS and DVD in 1999. The series was popular enough for Warner Bros. Animation to invest in additional episodes of the show past the traditional 65-episode marker for syndication; a total of 99 episodes were finally produced. One theatrical cartoon short film starring the Animaniacs characters, "I'm Mad," was produced and released to theaters in 1995.
Animation fans consider Animaniacs the high point of the Warner Bros. revival of the 1990s that was inspired by the original Termite Terrace. After Animaniacs, Spielberg collaborated with Warner Bros. Animation for a third time to produce the short-lived series Freakazoid, along with the Animaniacs spin-off series Pinky and the Brain. Warner Bros. also produced two additional "zany" and "madcap" series in the later half of the decade entitled Histeria! and Detention, but neither of these series found a sizable audience, and they were both swiftly cancelled. Warner Bros. cut back the size of its animation studio (the high cost and relatively low profit of its animated feature films of the period also had an effect on the studio), and production on further Warner Bros. animated comedy series ceased. Animaniacs and Tiny Toon Adventures continued to rerun in syndication through the 1990s into the early 2000s. It currently airs on the Nicktoons network.
An Animaniacs comic book, published by DC Comics, ran from 1995 to 2000 (59 regular monthly issues, plus two specials). Animaniacs the video game based on the series was also made for the SNES and Sega Genesis.
Episodes: 99 additional episodes, and 1 made-for-TV movie
Animaniacs was a very musical cartoon, with every episode featuring an original score (and in many cases, several original songs). Each group of characters had its own subtheme in the score, and the Hip Hippos and Pinky and the Brain even had their own full theme songs.
The three Warner siblings often performed songs, including parodies of classical and folk music, often with an educational twist, listing, for example, U.S. states or American presidents. Pinky and the Brain occasionally got songs to sing as well, and the most complicated songs in the series usually went to Rita, voiced by singer Bernadette Peters (poking fun at Broadway shows in general, and Stephen Sondheim's works in particular). Rita and Runt even took on Broadway directly with a parody of Les MisÚrables called Les Miseranimals, which aired early in the first season.
Three albums of music from the series were released:
- Yakko's World
- Variety Pack
Animaniacs often made parodial episodes from TV shows and movies. One of the most watched ones was the episode Super Strong Warner Siblings, which parodied a TV series of the 90s, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. The costumes and "megazord" were extremely accurate. And they conformed to the style of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie and made the "Rangers" have powers based on modern animals!
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