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Hulu's 'Animaniacs' has plenty of the original's references — but little of its magic

In attempting to reboot a beloved children’s classic, “Animaniacs” reminds us that change is often a good thing — and some parts of the past are better left behind.
The "Animaniacs" are back and ready to wreak havoc.
The "Animaniacs" are back and ready to wreak havoc.Courtesy Amblin Television/Warner Bros. Animation / Hulu

Nostalgia programming has always been an important part of TV’s strategy — and appeal. Early series were reboots and remakes of popular radio programs, while variety shows harkened back to vaudeville. Hollywood has been mining older, recognizable properties since “The New Brady Bunch” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” But the explosive growth of so many streaming services has led recently to the sensation that everything is either being revived, rebooted or reimagined.

The explosive growth of so many streaming services has led recently to the sensation that everything is either being revived, rebooted or reimagined.

Today, the landscape is littered with 1990s nostalgia. The latest example of this phenomenon is a revival of the beloved “Animaniacs” cartoon, which aims to attract a new generation of children while also appealing to their 30- and 40-something parents. But in an attempt to recapture the tone of the original series, “Animaniacs” only highlights how much of our culture has (rightly) moved on.

The current spate of reboots, reunions and recreations of older shows is not just a product of streaming programming. Production studios would not gravitate toward them if they didn’t sell. But viewers flock to them as representations of comfort, and the reassurance that nothing is really changing that much and we’re not all getting older and older every day. (These are lies, of course. We are all getting older, and the world has changed, drastically, since the late 1980s and early '90s — politically, culturally and technologically.)

But even if the world is in upheaval, nostalgic shows reassure us that our TV friends are still the same. Over on “Saved by the Bell,” (arriving Nov. 25 on Peacock) Bayside High’s rich students have gotten richer, but the gang’s still here. “Roseanne” may have been problematic with her politics, but the success of “The Conners” was proof of concept. Even game show revivals like “Supermarket Sweep” prove grocery stores have changed, but shopping hasn’t. In other words, the most effective reboots are updated for the times, but reverential of the timeless aspects of the original. “Animaniacs,” unfortunately, has failed to understand this.

The initial series ran on Fox from 1993 to 1995 and then on the WB until 1998. The Children’s Television Act of 1990 demanded children’s programming include “educational” segments, which did not integrate well into the anvil-dropping antics of old school cartoons like “Looney Tunes.” “Animaniacs” was a response to this need, creating an entirely new cast of characters combining the zany, madcap zeal of the Bugs Bunny era with occasional songs on science, history and geography. (Full disclosure: Yakko Warner’s “Nations of the World” was instrumental to this writer passing 11th grade world geography.)

Yakko and Wakko, and the Warner sister Dot have missed you. Have you missed them?Courtesy Amblin Television/Warner Bros. Animation / Hulu

The Marx-like brothers Yakko and Wakko, along with their obviously token sister, named for the “Dot” at the end of the Warner Bros. company name, resembled the vaguely anthropomorphic creatures found in 1930s cartoon reels. Their shorts played alongside those of “Pinky & The Brain,” a pair of mice attempting to take over the world; “Slappy Squirrel,” a cranky vaudeville squirrel still trying to be culturally relevant; “Goodfeathers,” best described as Martin Scorsese but with pigeons; “Chicken Boo,” a chicken in human guises; plus a few other less memorable offerings.

But “Animaniacs” wasn’t timeless in the sense that it closely mirrored its environment. Movies like “Reality Bites” and “Slackers” heralded a generation that looked at the world and said, “Whatever, man.” That sardonic, too-cool-for-school attitude pervaded “Animaniacs,” which deliberately aimed as much for a 20-something stoner audience as it did tweens and teens. The new series, which doesn’t include original creator Tom Ruegger, seems to assume success requires not just being aggressively self-aware, but tripling down on it, which results in a whole lot of flop sweat and failure.

The show cracks nervous jokes about political and societal transformation. Some of this works, like the visual references to franchise stars of Warner movies hanging out everywhere. But where the show falls down is the once-beloved musical numbers, which feel uncomfortable and out of date. It doesn’t help that the show claims the scripts were written in 2018. But the real kicker is when the showrunners resurrect anti-feminist, anti-Hillary images from the 1990s. It’s is an ugly reminder of how these cartoons reflected attitudes that are — thankfully — no longer considered funny.

And that’s only the first episode; it doesn’t get any better. Ruegger and company used to take the “educational” directive to bring in characters like Einstein, Beethoven and Michelangelo, all of whom turned out to be jerks in need of some wacky comeuppance. The new series swaps historical heroes with contemporary political figures. The resulting quasi both-sideism is mostly toothless and pointless. In the 1990s, hating all politicians and sneering at “both sides” was the disengaged way. But here it just reminds us that being apathetic can have pretty serious consequences. In attempting to reboot a beloved children’s classic, “Animaniacs” reminds us that change is often a good thing — and some parts of the past are better left behind.