The new “Animaniacs,” premiering on Hulu 27 years after it first debuted and in a world where the iconic WB water tower recently got an HBO Max makeover, is well aware of what its preemptive critics might think of it. In one of the first new episodes, for instance, Warner brothers Yakko (Rob Paulsen), Wakko (Jess Harnell) and their Warner sister Dot (Tress MacNeille) sing a peppy song about Hollywood’s conveyer belt of reboots that ends with them all sitting on a giant pile of cash while the Hulu logo blares behind them in bright neon. In the tweaked opening credits, one of TV’s most enduring theme songs gets pointed lyric updates advising mad nerds to remember that the “Animaniacs” “did meta first,” and assuring the audience that this reboot is appropriately “gender neutral” and “ethnically diverse” for its new era. (Sure.) So while the 1993 “Animaniacs” was aggressively self-aware, this 2020 version feels aggressively so, even defiant, as it constantly works to justify its existence.
The first “Animaniacs,” from creator Tom Ruegger, was an explosion of bonkers energy with a sly sense of humor that kept it as buoyant as its constantly bouncing protagonists. Yakko, Wakko and Dot were part of a bustling “Tiny Toons” universe including mouse odd couple Pinky and the Brain, Slappy the Squirrel, and a trio of wise guy pigeons known as the “Goodfeathers.” Together, they wreaked havoc, traveled through time, sang silly songs and skewered the more ridiculous sides of Hollywood, both old and new. (That Steven Spielberg was, and remains, an executive producer of the show made for some particularly fun and meta moments.)
The new “Animaniacs,” from Gabe Swarr and longtime “Family Guy” producer Wellesley Wild, pares down the “Tiny Toons” crew to just the mice and Warners and spends a good amount of time getting them all up to speed on modern life. At one point, though, the show betrays just how long animation takes when the Warners muse that they have to “assume” that there’s still a President Trump, but they’re speaking to us from 2018, so who knows.
It’s an early throwaway joke, but it turns out to be more representative of the new “Animaniacs” than not. Instead of going to the rich well of entertainment industry nonsense and historical larks that kept Ruegger’s “Animaniacs” afloat, Wild’s “Animaniacs,” relishes the opportunity to take shots at Politics Today in a way that has kept “Family Guy” running for years, but rarely fits the Animaniacs themselves. Yakko, Wakko and Dot are shrewd, sure, but they’ve always rather been agents of chaos accidentally on purpose upending the world than just snarky pundits commenting on its flaws.
If you don’t think about it too hard, this “Animaniacs” reboot at least looks and sounds an awful lot like its predecessor, with its “Looney Tunes” music cues and elastic shenanigans. Occasionally, it hits on a smart way to update the old sensibility in a way that makes perfect sense, particularly when it switches up the animation style to explore a different world. But more often than not, its focus on how messed up the world is now gives 2020’s “Animaniacs” more of a sour aftertaste that keeps it from being as effervescent as it once was, and could be.
The new season of “Animaniacs” premieres Friday, November 20 on Hulu.