It was never entirely clear at whom the mid-'90s animated TV series Animaniacs was aimed. The show could be tremendously little-kid lowbrow, with entire segments devoted to operatic belching or a "potty emergency." But the pop-culture nods flew fast and furious, from the vaudeville one-liners to the cameos from Warner Bros. cartoon superstars. The children enjoying the title characters' frantic mugging and bouncy, clever, often educational songs couldn't possibly recognize the caricatures of Humphrey Bogart or Jerry Lewis, let alone follow the extended satire of Apocalypse Now or parse the opening theme's mention of pay-or-play contracts. In fact, many of the references are so obscure or dated that parents probably missed them too. But studio in-jokes and nonstop allusions are a familiar Warner tradition: At heart, the writers were writing for Looney Tunes fans, age notwithstanding.
Still, there's a lot of filler to go with the stellar bits, and the long-awaited initial five-DVD box set, which covers the first 25 episodes (out of 65 in the first season, and 99 over a five-year run) offers plenty of sketches worth skipping. The actual Animaniacs are three generic cartoon characters who habitually badger famous figures or bumble through movie parodies. Other sketches revolve around a stable of characters that includes the Goodfeathers, a flock of mobbed-up pigeons based on the stars of Goodfellas, or Slappy Squirrel, a bitter, aged-out former cartoon star who provides an in for old-Hollywood jokes.
Another Animaniacs duo later got their own spin-off show, which rates its own four-disc set; Pinky And The Brain, Vol. 1 centers on two lab mice out to take over the world. Like the sketches that spawned the series, these 22 episodes (the first season and most of the second) are low-key by Animaniacs standards, with more plot and fewer random references. They're still pretty goofy, as each phenomenally unlikely world-domination plot spirals out into an attenuated, silly Rube Goldberg scheme, but unlike Animaniacs, they're still directed more at discriminating kids than at nostalgic adults who wish Bugs Bunny was still making 'em like he used to.
Key features: Cast-member interviews on both sets.