They’re Animaniacs, and they’re rebooting to the max.
In the first big musical number of the long-awaited reboot to the beloved ‘90s animated series, the three deranged siblings who live in the Warner Bros. water tower — Yakko, Wakko and Dot — get caught up on the last 22 years since Steven Spielberg and Tom Ruegger’s original “Animaniacs” went off the air. Hanging chads, YouTube, climate change, all of it.
That comes with the in-sketch caveat that, given the long lead time on animation production, the show’s writers are penning the script in 2018, and therefore don’t know the results of this year’s presidential election. (According to some Trump supporters, neither do they.) But little did the show’s revivers know that the election would actually be the most predictable event scheduled for 2020.
“We were like, ‘OK, what’s gonna happen? What are the big events coming up? Let’s write to those,’” “Animaniacs” executive producer and “Family Guy” alum Wellesley Wild tells Variety of the creative process behind the Amblin TV-produced series. “We were going to be two years behind in terms of anything we could comment on or make fun of. So we wrote to the Olympics and the election. And some of those things, because of the pandemic, did not come to pass, so we’re left holding the torch, I guess you could say.”
Mercifully for the animators, entire storylines did not have be defenestrated — as the “Animaniacs” resident egomaniacal lab rat Brain often threatens to do to Pinky — but a few minor things had to be tweaked in recent months.
“Like, Dr. Scratchensniff gets sick at some point,” says Wild. “And obviously that has nothing to do with the pandemic, but it was written before the pandemic, so we changed it. We made him look less realistically sick and more polka-dotty sick.” There was also a CDC scene that had to be changed, adds co-executive producer Gabe Swarr.
Unprecedented global health disasters aside, Wild remembers telling Spielberg that he envisioned the new version, which premieres on Hulu on Nov. 20, seamlessly picking up as if it had never gone off the air. The original voice cast remains, with Rob Paulsen as Yakko, Jess Harnell as Wakko, and Tress MacNeille as Dot. Pinky (also Paulsen) and the Brain (Maurice LaMarche) are still trying to take over the world. (Noticeably absent is creator Ruegger, who has since elaborated on being left out of the reboot in an interview with Rolling Stone.)
“We didn’t want to screw it up, like so many other reboots can,” says Wild. “We just wanted to please the fans. We were given a gift, the privilege of rebooting a property that kind of managed to create lightning in a bottle. And Gabe and I were like, ‘OK, our first duty is to keep the fucking lightning in the bottle.'”
That went down to the animation style. Swarr did a deep dive into the original five seasons, which ran from 1993 to 1998, while preparing to re-animate the Warner siblings. Of the animation studios that worked on the ‘90s series, Swarr and Wild took a liking to Japan-based TMS Entertainment, so Swarr called up the original animators there to learn more about their process.
“In those conversations [we] figured out that they kind of didn’t follow a lot of what Warner Bros. was giving them [back in the ‘90s],” says Swarr. “They had kind of gone in their own direction, and that was the flavor that they brought to the show. So we figured out that flavor and went in that direction as far as design and timing and animation. Once we cracked that code, that was the thing that helped us figure out and unify, visually, everything moving forward.”
Wild credits Swarr with figuring out how to recreate the feel of hand-drawn animation, which was “like magic to me.”
The new “Animaniacs” spices up episodes by occasionally flipping to other styles; there’s an entire anime sequence that makes Yakko, Wakko and Dot look like “Yu-Gi-Oh!” extras, and another cutesy segment that basically turns them into Hello Kitty sidekicks. But even that recalls the old “Animaniacs,” which was no stranger to emulating other animation styles. Just re-watch the Season 5 premiere from 1998, for instance, and you’ll see the Warner brothers and Warner sister being licensed out to another studio that utilizes them in everything from a “Scooby-Doo”-style bit to a flattened, two-dimensional “Yogi Bear Show” parody.
From the five screener episodes that were made available ahead of the premiere, the 2020 Animaniacs appear to be more topical, and perhaps a little less anarchical, than their old selves. But they are as self-referential as ever, reminding viewers (and potential trolls) in the nostalgia-inducing-but-updated theme song that “we did meta first.”
Whether fans of the original will cotton to the modern-day trio is keeping Wild and Swarr on tenterhooks. Being tasked with refreshing the show was “kind of terrifying,” says Wild, “because we know these fans, they’re rabid. They’re very particular.”
And unlike TV creators who scoff at the idea of fan service, Wild and Swarr worked hard to honor the original series and its medley of over-the-top cartoon violence, parody, social commentary and musical comedy. But they will have to compete with a more crowded field of animated topical humorists, not to mention a legion of savvy kids raised on Snapchat and TikTok who are likely to keep up with the fast-paced gags — and even likelier to get bored, fast.
Wild learned as much from his two sons, ages 8 and 11. He’d show them storyboard panels, the occasional character design and animatics; he could tell when they were lukewarm on storylines.
“This new audience is way more sophisticated than I would have ever realized if I didn’t have these boys sitting right in front of me,” says Wild. “So that gave me a little more confidence to aim a little higher.”
The funny thing about “Animaniacs” and its original ascent in the popular culture is how inside-baseball some of it always seemed. (Giggling at the “Variety-speak” musical number and the show’s ornery, shouty Hollywood execs as a ‘90s kid and giggling at the same things now, as a Variety reporter, hits different.)
But its talent was being widely accessible enough that sketches about the industry still made viewers feel in on the joke. In its current incarnation, those types of bits remain, like the one in which the Warners appear in a three-headed Steve Jobs-inspired black turtleneck and introduce a short-form entertainment service, Bloopf, which offers videos 1/10 of a second long. Bloopf is almost immediately acquired by Spooder, an app that “delivers content with a burst of blinding light and sounds that only dogs can hear.” (That it coincides with the recent downfall of a certain short-form video enterprise is nothing but serendipitous comedic timing.)
Wild and Swarr simply hope that kids and grown-ups alike are able enjoy the show as a family.
“I think what we’re hoping for ultimately would be the ‘Jurassic World’ effect, where a generation has passed between fans of the original,” says Wild. “They’ve come of age and had their own kids. And now they want to see ‘Jurassic World’ and they’re bringing their kids to ‘Jurassic World.’”