|"We're the Warner brothers!"
"And the Warner sister!"
This was the regular greeting of the primary characters of Steven Spielberg's Animaniacs, a trio of indeterminate species who are all decidedly Looney. According to the show, the Warner Brothers and Sister were created by the animators at Termite Terrace and starred in a series of cartoons before the world had ever seen Bugs Bunny. These cartoons, which were apparently "filmed" rather than "animated" (as in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit), could not be made sense of by anybody. Since the insanity had no audience, the films were entombed in a vault deep in the Warner Bros. film studio. The Warner siblings, meanwhile, were locked in the trademark of the studio, the Warner Bros. water tower, never to be seen again. This was in the late 1930s. In the late 1990s, the Warners escaped and constantly wreak havoc around the Warner movie lot. The studio head ordered them to be treated by the studio psychiatrist, Dr. Scratchensniff. The siblings choose to torment him and his assistant, Hello Nurse (the character was named for how Yakko and Wakko, the brothers, greeted her on a regular basis. This was because she was quite the looker), as well as the studio head and the security guard on Warner detail, Ralph. It didn't take long for this concept to degrade into a simple showcase for the characters completely devoid of internal continuity, but that's not what the Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister) were really about. Sometimes they still ran amok in the studio, other times they went out into the world and hassled authority figures and people of historical significance, often causing history to take its scheduled course (inspiring Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address [which was finished except for the crucial first line], and Pablo Picasso's cubist movement) and still others they participated in absurd songs, such as Yakko Sings the Countries of the World (in order by continent and sung to the tune of The Mexican Hat Dance).
Each episode of Animaniacs featured a 6-12 minute Warner Bros. and Sister short, and one or two other shorts featuring a cavalcade of cartoon stars, none of whom had ever appeared anywhere but Animaniacs (that is, until Tiny Toon Adventures's Elmyra joined the cast in the last season, and remained with them for The Cat and Birdie, Warneroonie, Pinky Brainy Big Cartoony Show), including:
Buttons and Mindy: These two recreated classic chase cartoons. Mind you, not the Tom and Jerry variety, but something of a cross between The Roadrunner and a handful of Max Fleischer's Popeye cartoons that featured Swee'pea running away. Buttons, after being ordered by his owners and Mindy's parents ("Please, Mindy, don't call me 'Nice Lady,' call me 'Mommy!'" "OK, Nice Lady!") to take watch over Mindy and not do something else (track mud on the floor, dig up the flower garden, etc.) right before they leave for the day. Mindy's attention is invariably attracted by some object outside the confines of the backyard and quickly escapes, forcing Buttons to risk life and limb to chase her down and bring her home safely. In her continued effort to prevent anything bad from happening to Mindy, Buttons takes the brunt of everything, falling off cliffs, shielding Mindy from the explosion of dynamite with her own body, wrestling with wild animals inclined to harm Mindy, etc., and by the time Mindy decides to go home, Buttons has visibly been through hell, only to be admonished for her failure to regard the second half of her owner's orders (a wild animal Mindy has been chasing runs through the house and tracks mud all over the floor before leaving, the explosion that sends Buttons home lodges her up to her hind legs in the garden, etc.). Sometimes Mindy shows her appreciation by giving Buttons a hug before going inside, but Buttons leads a very hard life.
Chicken Boo: Chicken Boo is a master of disguise... almost. For some reason, no matter where he goes or what he does, he disguises himself as a human and is always highly regarded, be he the captain of the football team, the most respected Union soldier in the Civil War, or a cowboy. Everyone is always fooled by his transparent costumes (a letter jacket and nothing else, for example) save one person. There is always one person who sees that he is, in fact, a giant chicken. Ultimately, something causes his costume to fall off, and everybody sees that he was a giant chicken ("See, I told you he was a giant chicken"). After being chased away, he straighens himself up, dusts himself off, and walks into the sunset with his theme song playing in the background: "You wear a disguise to look like human guys; but you're not a man, you're a Chicken Boo."
The Goodfeathers: Pesto, Bobby, Squit are part of the pigeon Mafia (or something). They hang out on the statue of Martin Scorcese and mimic their parallel characters from Goodfellas. Bobby, the voice of reason, is Robert DeNiro, Pesto is the Joe Pesci hothead (constantly making the same assumptions from innocuous comments that Joe Pesci made when someone called him "funny." The difference is that Pesto isn't kidding around), and Squit is Ray Liotta's newbie character. Their first outing was a parody of West Side Story, complete with songs vaguely similar but legally different from those in the original; "As far back as I can remember, all I ever wanted to do was fall in love," narrates Squit at the beginning, setting a trend for every Goodfeathers cartoon after. "As far back as I can remember...", being the way Ray Liotta narration of Goodfellas began. Affectionate jokes were made in all directions; an enigmatic character known only as "The Godpidgeon" would occasionally wander in and offer advice in "Italian" sounding a great deal like Marlon Brando circa mid-1970s, and a number of episodes were parodies of movies: "Raging Bird," "Birds on a Wire," and "The Boids," which is a parody of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.
Pinky and the Brain: Their theme song really said it all:
"They're Pinky and the Brain, yes Pinky and the Brain;
One is a genius, the other's insane;
Two laboratory mice, their genes have been spliced;
Before each night is done their plan will be unfurled;
By the dawning of the sun they'll take over the world;
Their twilight campaign is easy to explain;
To prove their mousy worth, they'll take over the earth;
They're Pinky, They're Pinky and the Brain Brain Brain Brain Brain Brain Brain Brain Narf."
Pinky and the Brain was so popular it got its own show that even aired in prime time for one season. According to the end of every Pinky and the Brain short, they hatched and implemented a new plan for world domination every night from their cage in the Acme Laboratories building, only to be foiled by something the Brain failed to take into account.
At the end of Animaniacs's run and throughout The Cat and Birdie, Warneroonie, Pinky Brainy Big Cartoony Show, the pair went from being laboratory mice to the pets of Elmyra from Tiny Toon Adventures, which only made it more difficult for the Brain to conquer the earth. By that time, he was pretty much restricted to ways of making money, since it costs a great deal of money to afford the elaborate schemes through which the Brain intended to enslave us all, and the Brain no longer had the research and development budget from Acme. He rarely got even that far because Elmyra's sadistic love of cute little animals often distracted him at a crucial moment. Pinky, however, got along just fine with Elmyra's misguided affections.
It's worth noting that the Brain was voiced by Maurice LaMarche, a voice actor of some repute, who is probably best known for his nearly spot-on impression of Orson Welles (he provided the voice for Vincent D'onofrio's Orson Welles lookalike in Tim Burton's Ed Wood), which was identical to the voice he provided for the Brain (this was even referenced in a handful of Pinky and the Brain shorts, which referenced The Mercury Theater's War of the Worlds radio broadcast and the actor's notorious ad for a company selling canned peas, in which he berates his copywriter and director).
Rita and Runt: Bernadette Peters got to be a cute little kitty for this role. Rita and Runt were a homeless cat and dog pair that mirrored (in a way) George and Lenny from Of Mice and Men, and Charlie and Raymond from Rain Man (Runt even had Dustin Hoffman's speech affectation, and used the word "definitely" in much the same way). Every episode had a song or two as Rita and Runt tried to find themselves food, a home, or a place in history.
Slappy Squirrel: Slappy was an aging cartoon star, from the early years of animation. She was expert at toon slapstick (falling anvils, randomly placed dynamite, etc.) in her prime, and in her retirement years babysits her nephew Skippy, who loved hearing about her career, and re-enacting old battles with her geriatric Rogue's Gallery. She made cynical observations about the difference between modern cartoons and "classic" cartoons, dug out all the gags ever used by Bugs Bunny or Screwy Squirrel (in light of Ted Turner's buyout of MGM cartoons, and Warner Bros.'s subsequent buyout of Turner Entertainment, the two may have been related), only with new twists to them. She was cranky, wry, and took more pleasure in the suffering of her foils than most cartoon stars, but age has to come with some concessions, right?
Miscellaneous: There were a handful of other features that only appeared semi-regularly, regardless of whether their characters were presented in the opening credits. The Hip Hippos, the Randy Beaman kid, Katie Kaboom (whose first appearance was also Chicken Boo's first cartoon, "Katie Ka-Boo"), Mime Time and Good Idea/Bad Idea (starring an unofficial carry-over from Tiny Toon Adventures, Mr. Skullhead). Each short in these series were essentially different retellings of the same jokes. There were other features that starred the Warners, though they were also simple repetition, such as The Great Wakko-rotti (Wakko belching classical music) and The Wheel of Morality (the siblings spinning a Wheel-of-Fortune-style wheel and reading the randomly issued moral for the episode).
The show had a very old sensibility to it, as most of the jokes, especially those concerning celebrities, were from a 1930s perspective (appropriate, considering the Warner kids' backstory), and though a healthy interest in Bugs Bunny as a child would have been enough for someone to get the jokes (it was certainly enough for me), but those who were kids when the show came out were unlikely to know who the likes of Art Carney, Jerry Lewis, Orson Welles or even the animators of Termite Terrace were. This leads me to believe that the team behind Animaniacs and its sister shows Tiny Toon Adventures, Pinky and the Brain, and Freakazoid were advocates of creating cartoons that could be enjoyed by adults, if not aimed directly at them, without being filthy.
In the case of Animaniacs, the humour was aimed at anyone who could be bothered to watch it. The celebrity jokes (which did include some modern celebrities) were mostly of the sort that could only be truly gotten by those who were there when the people parodied were famous, though some measure of understanding could be gained simply by knowing who they were. The show's fascination with the heyday of the Warner Bros. studio, both animated and live-action celebrities, probably led to its longevity, as the show proudly boasted its Warner Bros. heritage, and not solely through the naming of the Warner Brothers (and the Warner sister), though Slappy Squirrel only described contemporaries that didn't actually exist, and the Warner kids rarely if ever mentioned Bugs Bunny or even Bosco by name.
I always liked Slappy Squirrel best. She reminded me of someone, though to this day I have no idea who. She won me over, though, with a joke she stole from Bugs Bunny: The rigged piano on which some sheet music (to the Irish song "Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms") has been placed, and the key struck at the end of the first bar is also the trigger to a high explosive hidden in the piano. In Ballot Box Bunny, mayoral candidate (Yosemite) Sam rigged the piano and encouraged Bugs to play. When Bugs played it, he hit the wrong keys at the end of the bar, infuriating Sam enough to get him to play it correctly and falling victim to his own ingenious trap. When Slappy perpetrated the same gag, she and Skippy were collecting nuts in a backyard guarded by a vicious bulldog, who attempted to sucker her with the same trick. Slappy played it correctly, but somehow the dog was exploded in his hiding place. Slappy looked at the screen and said, "Old gag. New twist." I was hooked.
I would be derelict in my duties as a critic, however, if I didn't mention the music. Animaniacs had a team of composers and lyricists (all listed here: http://amazon.imdb.com/Credits?0105941 under the heading, "Original Music By") who together created works of genius. One of the first songs that really hit this home was Yakko Sings the Cations of the World. Large vocabularies, long lists of random words, and other extremely difficult things to work with were melded seamlessly into song. From the explanation of an infinite universe (an idea previously tackled by Monty Python's Flying Circus, but still impressively done in Yakko''s Universe Song) to the anatomy of one of the most complicated organs in the human body (The Brain, sung by Pinky and the Brain to the tune of Turkey in the Straw) and even a parody of Modern Major General from the musical The Pirates of Penzance. If there were anything about the cancellation of Animaniacs that would constitute a travesty, it would be these skilled musicians being out of work. Fortunately, Animaniacs was only the beginning of a renaissance of Warner Bros. Animation, so it's extremely likely that this band of merry minstrels had quite a bit of work ahead of them.
Generally speaking, Animaniacs is a great show all around. More specifically, most of the series that appeared on the show were at worst entertaining. The exceptions are few:
The Hip Hippos were never funny. If you see an episode with them featured prominently, tape it and fast forward. They're not funny.
Buttons and Mindy got old, but if you watch them in chronological order of broadcast, you'll see that the writers knew this and were actively making efforts to compensate.
The Randy Beaman Kid should never be taken seriously. Don't even try, or you'll get a headache.
Everything else is on par with the classic works of the Warner Brothers animation department. I'd even go as far as to say that Pinky and the Brain surpassed them. Watch and enjoy.