Though it’s taken us an entire summer to get through the first quarter of Animaniacs’ 99-episode run, back in 1993, these 25 episodes spanned just over a month of daily weekday airings. Both the method in which we’re revisiting these episodes and the stature that the show has acquired in the years since it aired obscure the fact that at this point, Animaniacs was still a young series. As such, some things are still settling into place—such as the Rita and Runt theme song, which appears for the first time this week, or the debut appearance of Minerva Mink in the ensemble skit “Hercule Yakko”—and there are still surprising experiments here and there, such as the odd but charming “The Flame” from a couple weeks back or tonight’s wordless standalone skit “Wings Take Heart.”
But from the beginning, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot have been the glue that binds the show—sometimes blatantly, as on the occasions where Warners interstitials bookend and segue between an episode’s segments. Details like the tower escape and re-entry bits, the Wheel Of Morality mini-segments, the post-credits tower gags, the Warners appearing in the background of other characters’ skits, and so on create a sense of cohesion that’s especially valuable in an episode that combines, say, a Pinky And The Brain short with a dialogue-and-reference-free (read: very un-Animaniacs) short centered on a character we’ve never seen before and never will again.
“Wings Take Heart,” which centers on a twitterpated moth whose affection for a cute butterfly sends him through a gauntlet of bug-specific physical trauma, is in the vein of a Mindy and Buttons short, which means it’s long on cartoon-y slapstick and short on wit. It’s also animated by Akom, the same studio responsible for those shorts’ excellent shape and flow, as well as some seriously off-brand, buglike takes on the Warner siblings’ character designs. (Of course, the latter isn’t really a problem in a cartoon about two bugs.) There are very few surprises in Mothy’s journey back to his lady-bug: He gets hit by not one but two trucks, stuck in a motorcyclist’s teeth, and nabbed by a bird—though in all fairness, getting hypnotized by a forest-fire cobra is not on the shortlist of obvious dangers to bugkind, so kudos to writer Nicholas Hollander on that one. But the predictability is offset by some gorgeous, lush animation that sometimes looks more like it belongs on a movie screen than on Fox Kids at 4:30 on a Monday afternoon. In fact, at times “Wings Take Heart” almost resembles an old Disney short—that is, until the Warners make their customary cameo.
The Warners also open the show—pre-credits, somewhat oddly—with the weird-even-by-Warners-standards infomercial parody “Yakko’s World Of Baldness,” a fun little Saturday Night Live-type sketch that gets a lot of mileage out of the silliness of come-ons like, “I want to shave you bald and spray-paint your head for $19.95!” and, “As long as you wind up bald, we’re happy!” It’s not the best short-form Warners appearance—pretty much any of their songs would top it—but it, combined with a closing Wheel Of Morality (“If you can’t say something nice, you’re probably at the Ice Capades”) lend some ballast to an episode that might otherwise feel ungainly.
The Pinky And The Brain short “Opportunity Knox” anchors the 24th episode, and it’s one of my preferred variety of P&B entries, one where Brain’s world-takeover scheme is undercut by his own hubris or oversight, rather than convenient, slapstick-y machinations. Brain’s scheme this time is refreshingly point-A-to-point-B, with no “and then a miracle happens” between the success of his plan and his ascendancy to world domination: Steal all the gold in Fort Knox, thus controlling the capital of what was at that point—sigh—the world’s most powerful nation. (Actually, for this plan to be even remotely likely, Brain would probably have to make a second stop at the Federal Reserve Bank; but by cartoon logic, it’s fairly sound.) His plan to distract the guards by bombing them with some ultra-pollen that causes uncontrollable sneezing is just ridiculous enough, especially taking into account that they’re two tiny mice who could just dart past the guards unnoticed. Of course, that tininess is precisely what causes the plan to fail when they can’t actually lift any of their precious gold, much less steal it. Where’s Brain’s man-suit when he really needs it?
Episode 25’s “Hercule Yakko” is on the other side of the cohesion spectrum from the cut-and-paste of the previous installment, cramming almost all of Animaniacs’ recurring characters into the same short. It kicks off with Flavio and Marita—whose missing diamond is what summons the Warner siblings’ detective pastiche—and brings in Slappy, Pinky and The Brain, and newcomer Minerva Mink as suspects/passengers on the Nile riverboat. (Plus Chicken Boo as a pizza-delivery boy who is also a chicken, I tell ya, he’s a chicken!) But it’s still most decidedly a Warners short. And in case there’s any doubt, “Hercule Yakko” makes explicit and obvious reference to the Warners’ comic forebears when Dot opens one of the boat’s cabin doors and responds with an eye-rolly, unimpressed laugh, “I see, it’s that Night At The Opera bit, funny bit…”
But that reference to a 1935 comedy is far from the most adult moment in “Hercule Yakko”; that would in fact be the most notorious double-entendre in Animaniacs history. You know the one. Here, I’ll start off and you can finish: “Hey, I found Prince!” (If you want the story behind that one, you should check out the Nostalgia Critic’s extensive video interview with the Animaniacs creators.) The audacity of that line casts a long shadow over “Hercule Yakko,” but there’s a lot more to this one than a spectacularly dirty joke. The investigation of the Warners’ detective analogues—Yakko in the role of Agatha Christie’s famous sleuth, “Dr. Wakko” nodding to Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick, and “No. 1 Sister” Dot holding it down for Charlie Chan—inspires lots of the siblings’ classic silliness: Yakko’s insistence that he is “this far” from solving the crime, holding a hand far away from the two inch-apart fingers in front of his face; everyone trying to perfectly, loudly replicate Marita’s scream in their retelling of what happened; Wakko collecting clues by grabbing the entire background and shoving it in a bag; and the eventual discovery of the diamond trapped in the folds of Marita’s vast posterior. There’s also a fair bit of Hello-Nurse-ing thanks to Minerva Mink’s brief appearance, sadly (?) the only time we’ll see her in this retrospective.
“Hercule Yakko” is among the Warners’ high points, and “Home On De-Nile” occupies a similar designation among Rita and Runt shorts (which isn’t quite the same, but…). The short is stymied by some embarrassingly out-of-date references, as Rita and Runt find themselves in ancient Egypt while trying to find Sonny Bono in Palm Springs. But the cat-worshipping setting of Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s Egypt is a good one for this pair. Being an object of worship brings out the best of Rita’s diva tendencies, including one of her best songs, “All Wrapped Up In Love” (which gets a really nicely animated sequence from TMS to go with it). And the hieroglyphics that lay out what’s in Rita’s future—a harvest sacrifice involving a cauldron of fire—are simple enough that even Runt can decipher them, though it takes him a couple tries. Rita and Runt are among the more formulaic of the Animaniacs characters—which is saying something on a show that embraces formula—but the right setting and a kickass Bernadette Peters song go a long way toward elevating them.
As is only appropriate, we end on a Warners short, the brief but inspired “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a straightforward(ish) reading of Puck’s speech by Yakko, complemented by “translation” from Dot. This is a concept that couldn’t stretch much further than it does here, but Dot’s sardonic commentary and Wakko’s background shenanigans with a fairy make for a uniquely Warnersian experience, complete with an appearance from Batman and Robin to punctuate the closing “and Robin shall restore amends.” Or, to put it more Warner-appropriate terms: “Goodnight everybody!”
- Next time you get pulled over for driving 100 mph over the speed limit without a license, just take a page from Brain’s book and say, “If you must know, we are two lab mice out to control the world by seizing its gold assets. But when we assume power, rest assured our budget will result in substantial new funding for law enforcement.”
- “Egad! This is even better than a DuckTales episode, Brain!”
- One of the better “Are you thinking what I’m thinking Pinky” responses: “I think so, Brain. But balancing a family and a career, it’s all too much for me.”
- The Animaniacs background music returns to the “Shortnin’ Bread” motif several times—at least twice in this pair of episodes alone—but there’s also a neat moment where the music switches to “Bringing Home A Baby Bumblebee” when the buzzard brings Mothy to her nestlings, as well as a Nutcracker riff during “Midsummer.”
- Flavio: “Are you an inspector of the yard?” Yakko: “Not if you have a dog.”
- Thus marks the end of TV Club’s Animaniacs coverage. And so I leave you, friends, with the immortal words of Dot Warner in “Hercule Yakko”: “Well, that was pointless.”