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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

‘Pinky and the Brain,’ ‘Animaniacs,’ ‘Danger Mouse,’ etc.

Cartoon Roundup: The Saturday Mornings That Used to Be

The phrase “Saturday morning TV” holds for me a heady nostalgia for a time of which I can only dream. I look at TV listings today and I see titles like Trollz, Bratz, and — Christ on a pony — Horseland, and it makes me weep. You see, I recall that golden age of the early 1990s when Saturday morning was a witty wonderland of live-action weirdness like Pee-wee’s Playhouse and Beakman’s World — which turned kiddie variety and educational programs into bizarro performance art — and cartoons that were more in the vein of classic Bugs Bunny than focus-grouped marketing ploys.
Don’t get me wrong: I remember the Smurfs and Transformers, but with the exception of SpongeBob Squarepants, I can’t think of a single cartoon currently in production that as suitable for adults as it is for kids: it’s almost all junk today, which wasn’t always the case. Fortunately, the DVD gods feel my pain, and have seen fit to bestow upon us, finally and at long last, the one that warped me for good, cartoonwise: Animaniacs. The five-disc Volume 1 collection, released this summer (Volume 2 arrives in December), sports 25 classic episodes from early in the show’s five-year run, which began in 1993. Goofy enough for kids to love, it’s aimed more squarely at adults who adore the Looney Tunes; the Animanics truly are the heirs to Bugs and Daffy and the rest of the old gang. Wacko and Yakko, the Warner brothers, and Dot, the Warner sister, run rampant through the last 50 years of pop culture, from sendups of Gilbert and Sullivan (“we are the very model of cartoon individuals,” they sing in one of the many irresistibly catchy musical numbers) to Marx Brothers-style antics that defy critical analysis, except to dub them outrageously hilarious, to cynical deconstructions of Disney films (Vol. 1 includes the classic “Bumbie’s Mom,” which takes down Bambi). Contemporary movies and politics are constant targets, too: the repetoire includes the Goodfeathers, three pigeons with suspiciously Italian-Brooklyn accents, and there is much good-natured ribbing of Bill Clinton. [buy Vol. 1 at Amazon / preorder Vol. 2]

With an instant cult forming around the Animaniacs, two members of the company were spun off into their own show, and, though seemingly impossible, Pinky and the Brain was even more inventive, more sarcastic, more outrageously entertaining. And the DVD gods, capricious as they can be, knew that it would have been far too big a tease for Animaniacs to land on DVD without Pinky and the Brain at the same time, so you can indeed now get your grubby fannish hands on a four-disc Volume 1. (Again, look for Volume 2 in December.) Any halfway devoted fan of these laboratory mice — one is a genius who wants to take over the world, the other’s an insane but sweet idiot — can instantly rattle off the universally favorited episode: “Tokyo Grows,” a Godzilla parody; the historical epic “Napoleon Brainaparte”; the globetrotting adventure “Around the World in 80 Narfs”; “The Third Mouse,” which likely has Orson Welles rolling in his grave and likely only even exists because Maurice LaMarche, the voice of the Brain, does an impersonation that’s even more Welles than Welles; “Brain’s Song,” a riotous look at melodrama as the path to world domination. They’re all here, plus a 17 more, and It Is Good. [buy Vol. 1 at Amazon / preorder Vol. 2]

(I can’t think about the Brain without thinking about the rodent who probably could have defeated him, had one of his plans to take over the planet not fallen victim to his own hubris: Danger Mouse, the greatest secret agent in the world. This British series predates Animaniacs but didn’t show up here in the States, where it aired on Nickelodeon, till just a few years earlier. A spoof of all manner of British spy stuff with a healthy dollop of Doctor Who-style science fiction, this is clever fun for Anglophiles and cartoon lovers; the final batch of episodes were released in a three-disc set called The Final Seasons last month [buy at Amazon].)

Toons for grownups was obviously a meme sputtering around the zeitgeist, though — Generation Xers not wanting to grow up might have had something to do with it — because it was also in 1993 that Beavis and Butt-head made their debut on MTV. The anti-adventures of these two uber slackers, who did nothing but watch TV and snark at it, as much as morons are able to snark, and hang around their place of employment, Burger World, not working as much as possible, were definitely not for kids. But clearly, the packaging of the latest DVD release of episodes — Beavis and Butt-head: The Mike Judge Collection Volume 3 — expects its audience to be smarter than its characters: illustrations on it ape Munch, Warhol, and Escher. (This set includes music videos, with the boys’ commentary, which haven’t been previously available, as well as the original B&B short “Frog Baseball,” which is truly sick and twisted and, like, cool.) [buy at Amazon]

The Simpsons had been around for years already at this point, of course, but perhaps it was the rabid adult following that Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain inspired — they were among the first online fandoms to spring up — as well as the success of Beavis and Butt-head that made room for the toons explicitly aimed at adults that sprang up in the mid to late 90s. Like The Tick, probably the best superhero sendup ever; The Tick vs. Season One was released on DVD recently, and remains as clever and incisive today as it was a decade ago, when it aired in primetime on Fox. And today we’ve got an entire lineup of cartoons not for tender eyes on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. [buy at Amazon]

But there was a combination of innocence and ingenuity in those crossover cartoons, the ones that kids and adults alike could enjoy, that has been lost. One need only take a look at Ren & Stimpy: The Lost Episodes, new to DVD, to see how licentiousness isn’t always the path to tickling sophisticated sensibilities. Here are the finished episodes and new episode produced from proposed scripts that were vetoed by Nickoldeon during the show’s early-90s run — they finally aired on Spike in 2003 — but without the self-censorship required of material intended for kids (not that Ren & Stimpy didn’t come under plenty of fire back when for crossing lines), these anything-goes episodes simply aren’t anywhere near as funny as the original show. The best of these wide-appeal toons were undeniably smart but sweetly silly; today’s grownup toons are merely excuses for boorish sex jokes and crude grossouts. There’s nothing clever in that. [buy at Amazon]

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  • eigafan

    How about Savage Steve Holland’s “Eek! the Cat” and Jhonen Vasquez’s “Invader Zim” as well as “ReBoot” the first full length computer animated TV series. I enjoyed the old Synchro-Vox cartoons of “Space Angel” with the Alex Toth rocketships and hope it gets released someday like “Clutch Cargo” did on DVD. I also like Gerry Anderson’s Sci-Fi Supermarionation shows Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, and Terrahawks (in Supermacronation).

  • Shadowen

    Not really original, but the early-mid nineties X-Men series was oddly good. It had surprisingly good voice acting, acceptable toning down of the really brutal comic storylines for Saturday morning cartoons, decent animation, character pathos, good music, and valuable lessons for the kiddies. (In fact, I basically repeated a line word for word from the cartoon to my Mom when we were watching the news and there was some sort of race riot or something going on, about fearing what you don’t understand, and she actually looked proud of me.)

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