Animaniacs: “Guardin’ The Garden”/“Plane Pals” & “Be Careful What You Eat” / “Up The Crazy River” / “Ta Da Dump, Ta Da Dump, Ta Da Dump Dump Dump”
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Animaniacs: “Guardin’ The Garden”/“Plane Pals” & “Be Careful What You Eat” / “Up The Crazy River” / “Ta Da Dump, Ta Da Dump, Ta Da Dump Dump Dump”

It’s weird seeing Slappy The Squirrel in a cartoon.

Okay, I’ll explain: Up until now, we’ve only seen Slappy in the “real world” of her animated universe, i.e. the world outside the cartoons she made as a famous toon star, where she lives in a tree, is visited by her nephew Skippy, and reminisces about “the old days.” She still acts like a cartoon and employs cartoon tricks, but she does them in a context outside of the “cartoon short,” which allows the character (or rather, the writers) to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to conventional cartoon mayhem, having Slappy comment and improve upon familiar gags. But “Guardin’ The Garden” sees Slappy coming out of retirement, as it were, placing her in setting that’s different and independent from the one she shares with Skippy (who does not appear in this short). If we accept the concept that Slappy is “retired” from cartoons, “Guardin’ The Garden” is sort of like a late-career comeback; it’s her The Wrestler, only with more cannons.

Of course, she’s still the same Slappy we know and love from the likes of “Slappy Goes Walnuts” and “Bumbie’s Mom.” Which means even though she’s in a somewhat conventional setup—assigned by “Mr. Big” to keep watch over the Garden Of Eden, specifically that pesky serpent who’s trying to mess with the apples on the tree she lives in—she’s as self-referential as ever: “Ah, that snake doesn’t have a leg to stand on,” she mutters after snapping the snake in a giant mousetrap, before saying to the camera, “Hey, it’s the dawn of time, whaddaya expect, new jokes?” That sort of meta-ness doesn’t always work, such as the button after Slappy flings the snake, shot-put style, into a tree trunk, prompting the voiceover narrator to intone, “So stay tuned, for The Garden Of Eden’s Funniest Home Videos.” Slappy doesn’t need help commenting on her shtick, weird voiceover guy! (Actually, weird voiceover guy is the legendary “voice of ABC” Ernie Anderson, who was also the actual announcer for America’s Funniest Home Videos.)

Unlike the usually chaotic-out-of-the-gate Warners shorts, Slappy cartoons take a while to ramp up, making their way through a few softball gags—including a Baby Plucky Duck cameo here, for those of you who enjoy the nostalgia of hearing “down the hoooooole” again—before building to the sort of fast-paced mayhem expected of this genre. “Guardin’” in particular has what might be one of my favorite cartoon setpieces of all time, a brilliant riff on the ol’ cannon gag that subverts, then reverts, then re-subverts expectations, then does it all over again. (It starts around 3:50 in the video linked above.)

The second half of Episode 22, the Warners short “Plane Pals,” is a little less inspired, though it does have a very high concentration of good one-liners, even by the high standards of a Warners short. (My favorite, from Dot: “Want some of my mayonnaise muffin?” Which isn’t really a joke, but it is a hilariously disgusting way to kick off a conversation.) I guess that’s what happens when you trap Yakko, Wakko, and Dot in the confined space of an airplane and give them a truly nasty adversary to bounce off of. The Warners’ antagonists (especially the historical ones) tend to be circumstantial villains, flawed but not overtly “bad” characters who are prodded into malevolence through the stress of dealing with the Warners. But aptly named blowhard businessman Ivan Bloski is a jerk from the words “Do you know who I am??,” making his comeuppance at the manure-soiled hands of the hyperactive siblings particularly satisfying, especially once they decide to make him their “special friend.” (“Help, I’m being harassed by children who look like big bugs with clothes!”) Plus, it introduces us to Yakko-as-fertilizer-salesman’s philosophy on life, which provides a nice spectrum upon which to rate things, from solid cow dung to sloppy pig doo.

Episode 23 provides a nice—if not especially funny—counterpoint to the winking, wordplay-heavy Slappy-Warners combo of 22, focusing on the crude cartoon slapstick of Mindy and Buttons and The Goodfeathers, which might just be the worst character combo in the Animaniacs arsenal. (The sloppy pig doo, if you will.) The Warners themselves are only a footnote in this episode, kicking things off with the junkfood-influenced list song “Be Careful What You Eat,” a cheerful ditty that makes the dangers of poor eating habits sound fun, and appearing in the interstitials between segments, plus a short Wheel Of Morality bumper. That sort of padding is usually indicative of a subpar episode, and perhaps not surprisingly, the Warners interstitials—new ones focusing on some p-sychiatry sessions between them and Dr. Scratchnsniff—contain some of the more entertaining elements of 23; I particularly like Wakko explaining his blank-paper drawing, which used to contain a cow eating grass until the cow ate the grass and then left.

That might be as witty as this episode gets, though in their defense, Mindy and Buttons aren’t designed to be witty; they’re designed to facilitate inventive, mostly wordless cartoon choreography. The Brazilian rainforest setting of “Up The Crazy River” (which I can only find a video of in French, but there’s fortunately very little dialogue) is somewhat unusual for the pair, who tend to favor locations with nearby construction sites for Mindy to wander into. So “Crazy River” has to go all Fern Gully on this segment, forcing in a lesson about the precious fragility of the rainforest so that Mindy has a danger-filled logging operation and pulp mill to lead Buttons through, and eventually destroy. The extended logging sequence feels a little out of place in the typically moral-free environs of a Mindy and Buttons short—hell, if anything, the moral of Mindy and Buttons shorts tends to be along the lines of “keep your head down and don’t get involved”—but I suppose it’s admirable to teach kids that rampant deforestation is a bad thing that hurts animals and their cute babies. And it’s nice to see Mindy’s recklessness eventually having an effect on someone more deserving than Buttons for a change.

Ta Da Dump, Ta Da Dump, Ta Da Dump Dump Dump,” on the other hand, is about as typical as Goodfeathers shorts get, right down to the endless repetition of catchphrases and a food-procurement-based plot. If you played a drinking game where you took a drink every time Bobby calls the other two “maniacs,” and a shot every time Pesto does a “You callin’ me a ____” riff, you’d pass out five minutes into this eight-minute short. And while I don’t want to say you’d be better off for it—some of you like Goodfeathers, I gather—being intoxicated would probably improve such Pesto rejoinders as “What am I, a tin can here? I feel like an old shoe. Somebody throw some rice already.” All that said, as far as inventive cartoon problem-solving goes, getting un-stuck from soda-can rings by posing as cans on a hot-dog cart is pretty inspired. It’s unfortunately about as inventive as Episode 23 gets, placing this one squarely in the “for kids” column in the Animaniacs annals. Now, if it had a Slappy commentary track livening up all that bland slapstick, it might be another story…

Stray observations

  • So, the snake in “Guardin’ The Garden” is definitely a parody of Sir Hiss from Disney’s Robin Hood, right?
  • Slappy eating the apple at the end of “Guardin’ The Garden” raises disturbing theological quandaries.
  • Wakko upon discovering his vomit bag: “Oh poo, I got gypped, there’s none in here!”
  • I know it’s pointless to play logic police with cartoons, but couldn’t they at least have crossed out “oxygen” and written “helium” on the air canister that blows Ivan Bloski up into a balloon and makes his voice all squeaky?
  • “You’ll find lifejackets under your seat. In the event of a water landing, they will keep you afloat. Unless you’re seized by a giant squid and dragged screaming beneath the waves.”
  • Bloski shouting “this is absurd!” might be the most apt reaction anyone’s had to the Warners.
  • “Is there a doctor on this plane?!” Cue Yakko parachuting from the baggage compartment: “I’m a para-medic!”
  • “Coffee? Tea? Monster?”
  • “Friends don’t let friends disappear over the horizon alone!”
  • How did the Hip Hippos theme make its way into a Mindy and Buttons title card?
  • Cartoon lesson No. 7,476: If you’re stepping on a rock that’s in the middle of a river, it is most likely actually a crocodile.
  • Buttons’ sadness and anxiety while watching Mindy drive away in the back of a pickup truck is weirdly affecting. Poor puppy.
  • Housekeeping note: Next week we reach the end of the first volume of Animaniacs DVDs, and thus the end of these reviews for the time being. Make sure to come back next week to say “Goodbyyyyyye nurse!”

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