Following the see-what-sticks grab-bag feel of last week’s pair of episodes, this week’s two episodes find Animaniacs in a particularly cohesive mood, with Mr. Director returning to help anchor episode 20’s salute to the pain and perils of filmmaking, and the Warners and Co. getting historical for a patriotic, U.S.A.-themed 21st episode. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this silly, referential show does much better overall with the broad parody of the former than the occasionally forced sincerity of the latter, but both episodes have moments that fall under the heading “Classic Animaniacs.”
Animaniacs does best when it has strong, recognizable cultural entities to draft off of, and “Hearts Of Twilight” might be one of the more inspired pop-cultural stews the writers have thrown together on this show. It casts freunlavin-loving Jerry Lewis surrogate Mr. Director in a Hearts Of Darkness parody centered on a spoof of Lewis’ infamous The Day The Clown Cried, then tosses in the Warners to really get things percolating. While the most memorable part of “Hearts Of Twilight” may be the Jim Morrison-esque singer heralding “The End,” as well as the beginning and middle of the story—a supremely silly bit that still pops, unbidden, into my head from time to time—the Warner siblings themselves are in fine form throughout, reaffirming the notion that pitting them against adversaries who are crazier than they are brings out the best in the characters.
Tasked by Warner Bros. CEO Plotz to venture into the heart of the studio—which you better believe has a big pink heart-shaped building in it—and help the ever-mercurial Mr. Director find an ending for his hugely over-budget The Wretched Clown, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot unsurprisingly prove to have a big, blunt, mallet-shaped solution to the problem. But they also have other, non-mallet tools at their disposal, like Dot’s cuteness, which plays really well off of the
Tommy Chong-esque Dennis Hopper-esque guard who’s the target of her wiles: “You’ve got this whole cute, don’t-make-me-stay-in-here thing happening, man.” And while Yakko’s “unique ability” of using two paddleballs at once doesn’t provide much in the way of help (“It’s just fun!”), the eldest, wisest Warner does somehow manage to decode the super-secret password, causing the “freunlavin”-chanting guards to marvel, “They have spoken freunlavin! Go in we should let them!” Repeating silly-sounding pseudo-Yiddish words like “freunlavin” and “flamiel” is admittedly sort of cheap, but imbuing them with such gravity and import is a reliable comic tool, one that works particularly well in the bipolar world of Mr. Director. It’s too bad this is the last we’ll see of him—he appears only once more in the series, sort of, in the guise of a clown in episode 34—because he really is one of the Warners’ best comic foils, even if he does always fall for that dumb mallet gag.
Of course, a giant mallet to the head is as subtle as a cocked eyebrow compared to the gross slapstick that composes any given Goodfeathers sketch. I had forgotten until this summer’s rewatch how dependent Goodfeathers sketches are on Bobby, Pesto, and Squit getting pummeled and pummeling each other, which hasn’t aged nearly as well as even the silliest, flamiel-iest of Warners stuff. Even when it’s placed within a more sophisticated frame of reference—like Goodfellas, West Side Story, or this week, The Birds—ever-escalating infliction of pain is the name of the game in these cartoons. While it’s sort of fun to see the new and interesting ways the writers come up with to smash the Goodfeathers—who are working as “stunt birds” on a film called The Boids directed by an especially rotund, gasping “Hitch”—“The Boids” is more noteworthy in the way it attempts to comment on the nature of fame and sacrifice, eventually concluding “It’s better to be a somebody for a day than a nobody for a lifetime.” It’s a sort of bleak ending if you think about it—especially coming on the heels of the torment the Goodfeathers receive from a Jack Nicholson-esque crow throughout their workday—but ultimately “The Boids” boils down to the same lesson as “Hearts Of Twilight,” which is that there’s no problem that can’t be solved via physical violence.
Perhaps it’s just because it comes on the heels of a particularly sadistic pair of episodes, but taken as a whole, episode 21 might be as earnest as Animaniacs gets. Yes, there’s a classic Warners list song, “Wakko’s America,” and a particularly odd (which is saying something) Davy Crockett-themed Chicken Boo outing, but they’re bookended by two paeans to American history whose humor ranges from “gentle” to “non-existent.”
Which isn’t to say they’re bad. In fact, “The Flame” is one of the more interesting Animaniacs shorts, if only because it’s almost nothing like a typical Animaniacs short. (Though the flame’s voice does sound a whole heck of a lot like Skippy Squirrel—probably because he’s voiced by Luke Ruegger, son of “The Flame” writer Tom Ruegger and brother to the voice of Skippy, Nathan Ruegger.) Even its straightforward name is conspicuously devoid of the usual clever puns that make up Animaniacs segment titles. It’s less a story than a showcase for animation from the reliably great TMS, as the tiny bundle of fire first acquires sentience (“Oh my gosh there’s a fire! I’m on fire!”), then dances with the shadows of a darkened room, clings for dear life to his wick in the face of an open window, and watches as his “evil cousins” molt off of him and attempt to destroy a stack of papers. The eventual reveal that the human hand attached to the candleholder belongs to Thomas Jefferson, who’s been up all night writing the Declaration Of Independence by candlelight, is a cute one—even if it does necessitate the sight of a creepily human-looking cartoon Jefferson at the end—but it’s also strangely solemn, even with some lighthearted commentary from the tiny flame.
While the flame’s closing comments about how we should all take the day off and call it a national holiday would indicate that this episode aired around Independence Day, it actually aired originally in mid-October, which is even stranger when you take into account the closing Warners sketch “Four Score And Seven Migraines Ago.” (At least, it was the closer when the episode originally aired; for reasons unknown to me or, apparently, the entire Internet, it was swapped with “The Flame” in syndication so that it opened the show instead.) “Four Score” is a shorter-than-usual historical Warners short, with Yakko, Wakko, and Dot traveling to 1863 to ask a Gettysburg-bound Abraham Lincoln for his autograph, and end up assisting him in writing the opening of his upcoming address. (“Everyone knows that,” says Wakko. “It’s 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”) Compared to the buffoonish versions of historical characters we’ve encountered in previous shorts like this one, Lincoln comes off quite dignified and kind, despite his initial attempts to open his speech with statements like “Ich bin ein Gettysburger” and “So how ’bout those Yankees, huh?” He acquiesces to the Warners’ request for an autograph; listens patiently as they cycle through opening-line suggestions from Julius Caesar, The Twilight Zone, and Tiny Toon Adventures; and responds with only mild annoyance when they try to cheer him up by reminding him of his many impressive feats, like chopping down a cherry tree and throwing a dollar across the river to buy wooden teeth. He’s annoyed by them, but in an avuncular, fatherly sort of way that reads as much more reverent than the show’s previous portrayals of Mozart and “stupid Einstein dummy-boy.” Then there’s the ending, which, after Yakko inspires Lincoln by referencing a film that wouldn’t exist for another 75 years—Mr. Smith Goes To Washington—ends on a recitation of the Gettysburg Address. Which is fine, really; it’s always worth hearing the Gettysburg Address again. But it’s a surprisingly earnest conclusion from a show that just ended a previous short by backing over Jim Morrison with a golf cart.
- Adding to the cohesiveness of episode 20: An intro where the Warners make a dignified, Hitchcockian entrance before breaking to shout “FLAMIEL,” and a previously seen interstitial where Wakko acts as a reel-to-reel projector to screen the next cartoon.
- Episode 20 also appears to have a sub-theme of people getting backed over by vehicles; the Goodfeathers get smushed at the end of “The Boids.”
- Wakko doing tai chi atop the golf cart as Jim Fauxrrison sings “The Middle” is a nice nod-within-a-nod.
- Wakko drives a golf cart in the same manner that Billy from Family Circus would, complete with dotted-line tail.
- “Hearts Of Twilight” deploys its obligatory “the horror, the horror” line at a particularly opportune moment: As the Warners drive past the sign advertising the Warner Bros. studio tour for $27.50.
- “Oh, what is it, nice boy with no eyebrows!?”
- Hitch seems to have drafted one Norman Bates as his AD on The Boids, which is… an unusual choice.
- “Cut. Bad evening.”
- Ms. Flamiel returns in “Wakko’s America,” bitchy as ever, to fail Wakko for not putting his answer to “The names of all 50 states and their capitols” in the form of a question.
- And in conclusion, I bid you all adieu and freunlavin.