Cutting Down on the Chaff in "Animaniacs Vol. 2"
Those paying attention will have noticed that Toon Zone has already reviewed this set. Bird Boy’s opinion is pretty much mine, but I can’t just point to his review and say “ditto.” No Animaniacs review is that easy to write; in fact, it may be among the hardest shows that any conscientious reviewer can try to pin down. It’s not that it’s not a great show, as it most obviously is. Nor is it that there’s nothing to say about it, as I hope the following rambles will show. Rather, the challenge is in the show’s piecemeal structure: it provides a kaleidoscope of various characters that undoubtedly inspire different feelings and opinions. It’s like trying to review Saturday Night Live or Your Show of Shows. The comparison works well, as Animaniacs is essentially a Warner-styled sketch comedy show. It’s not that I can’t say what I like and what I dislike, but it is hard to impose a comprehensive judgment on the whole affair.
Still, it is possible to notice certain general qualities about this volume. On the first DVD volume, we could see each character in the Animaniacs canon being presented sorta as is: most of the sketches were about wringing jokes from the characters’ premises. We could also see the production crew testing these characters, seeing how far they can stretch them, or putting them in outlandish settings or circumstances. In some cases, the characters were strong enough to hold their own, but some clearly weren’t and needed a hell of a lot more help. Vol. 2 shows lessons the Animaniacs crew learned.
Mindy and Buttons are a good example. I’m not really a big fan of this pair, as they relied on a certain amount of animated slapstick that I never found especially well-done. It’s also not very rewarding in terms of sympathies: Mindy’s too young for us to identify with, and Buttons is always taking it on the nose both physically and emotionally (getting chewed out at the end of every sketch by the mom). On Vol. 1, the episodes “Operation: Lollipop”, “Cat on a Hot Steel Beam”, and “Up the Crazy River” are difficult to laugh at since they’re actually kinda plausible in terms of child endangerment. But the Mindy and Buttons sketches on Vol. 2 throw them into places that can be treated comedically on the side, like prehistory or outer space (respectively, “Mesozoic Mindy” and “Astro-Button”). Notice, too, that Vol. 2 uses the Hip Hippos, who are far inferior to most of the other Animaniacs, only as supporting characters in “Noah’s Lark,” which is more about the Richard Lewis caricature of Noah. Even the Goodfeathers, who with their heavy reliance on pop-culture references, can be hit-or-miss, are modified to highlight more of their amusing camaraderie and personalities. Whether in modest bits like “Hiccup” or straight parodies like “Raging Bird”, the pigeons actually deliver rather well; that said, “Dough Dough Boys” isn’t one of their more sparkling appearances.
Vol. 2 also shows some of the stronger characters getting even stronger. Slappy Squirrel was a pretty great idea from the get-go, and had a fantastic voice performer in Sherri Stoner, but her Vol. 1 appearances sometimes betrayed the crew’s uncertainty about what to do with her. They threw her into the Garden of Eden, made every other line of hers relate to her old cartoons, and stuck her in a Beach Boys video. But her real strength is in her misanthropy and her self-aware reliance on cartoonishly overviolent means, and her cartoons on this set are far better at using these characteristics. (I’m looking forward to Vol. 3 and the “Who’s on Stage” bit.) More than anything, though, you’ll notice that Pinky and the Brain really come into their own on this volume, and this set makes it clear why they very shortly got their own series. Almost every one of their sketches here is an absolute winner, and they’re the first supporting characters on Animaniacs to get an entire episode to themselves (“Spellbound”). Look at how many notable P&TB appearances are on this set: “Jockey for Position”, “Puppet Rulers”, “The World Can Wait”, “When Mice Ruled the Earth”, and the eternal “Bubba Bo Bob Brain”. I can imagine people buying the first P&TB set back when it came out and wondering why those stories weren’t on there, as they’re practically as classic as the best episodes of their solo series.
I haven’t mentioned the Warners much, but I don’t even know that I have much to say about them, since they’re so prominent in the series on both volumes, and it’s almost redundant to point out how funny they are. They’re the show’s mascots as well as the real stars, and they probably have about just as many classic moments on this set as on the last one, as illustrated by, if nothing else, “Potty Emergency”, “Chairmen of the Bored”, and “A Christmas Plotz”.
It is, as I said above, hard to give Animaniacs a comprehensive rating, because each episode can vary wildly. Fortunately, it’s easy to recommend this release. So much of the show works (no surprise: the Warners preside over a majority of the episodes, and they almost never fail), and the weaker elements are few and far between. I’m as disappointed as the next guy that there aren’t more special features on the DVD set: such an approach makes it a collection rather than celebrations, and we fans usually want celebrations. Still, Animaniacs Vol. 2 stands out as a highlight merely due to the worth of its featured show, and those who like following the progression of a series will appreciate the progress it shows.