“Steven Spielberg Presents” is how the Animaniacs cartoon show always begins, and much is made of that impressive provenance. Modern successors to the Looney Toons, Animaniacs features a series of short cartoons starring a variety of hilariously improbable characters, like The Brain, a genius mouse who wants to take over the world, and his idiot sidekick, Pinky; and the Goodfeathers, wiseguy pigeons whose voices suggest DeNiro and Pesci (and named, natch, Bobby and Pesto). The show’s main characters, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot Warner — the Warner Brothers and the Warner Sister, as they remind us — live in the water tower on the Warner lot in Hollywood and like to drop names, like Spielberg’s, inappropriately.
I can’t imagine, though, that Spielberg did much beyond sign off on a memo (without reading it) for Animaniacs: Wakko’s Wish, the first full-length, direct-to-video animated movie starring the Animaniacs. The television show explodes with rapid-fire non sequiturs, dizzyingly complicated pop-culture references, inspired parodies of classical and Broadway-style music, and general mayhem. Wakko’s Wish, alas, doesn’t.
The faux-European village of Acme Falls has come under the thumb of a corporate-raider king (don’t ask me to explain), who is taxing his new subjects to death. The orphaned Warners are living on the snowy street, and poor Dot needs an unspecified operation, so Wakko wishes on what turns out to be “the one and only wishing star,” which falls to Earth. Now, he needs to journey to the distant land in which the star hit and touch it before he can make his wish. It’s a silly and contrived idea — which isn’t really the problem here — and a good excuse to set off a race amongst the townsfolk to be the first to reach the star and get the wish.
The townsfolk, of course, are the regular Animaniacs crew: the Warners, Pinky and the Brain, and the Goodfeathers; the cranky, retired cartoon star Slappy Squirrel and her nephew, Skippy*; mad scientist Doctor Scratchandsniff and his bodacious bombshell of an assistant, Hello Nurse; big, dumb Ralph, the security guard; and so on. Most of them have been given some sort of semi-appropriate role for this pseudo medieval/Renaissance-y town — Scratchandsniff sells elixir; Ralph is the town constable — and that’s where the problems begin. Imposing the kind of story and characters necessary to fill a 90-minute movie upon the Animaniacs constrains their lunacy. Their brand of wackiness is utterly dependent on unpredictability — corralling them should no more be attempted than should herding cats.
One brief sequence has a hint of what I was expecting from an Animaniacs film: The Warners, being tortured by the evil king (again, don’t bother asking), are sent on a funhouse ride through a house of horrors full of nightmarish visions… such as a Jerry Lewis nightclub performance. Good Animaniacs ‘toons are sweetly mean, stream-of-consciousness head trips, and with this bit Wakko’s Wish comes alive for a brief moment. But this departure from the pointless plot won’t be tolerated, so it’s back to unfunny one-liners and lame, half-hearted songs that do nothing but reiterate the action, which manages to be both frenetic and boring.
The Animaniacs are usually the stuff that inspires adult cult fandom and enthralls kids, even if they don’t understand it. Animaniacs: Wakko’s Wish may charm very young children with its simple tunes and fast-moving animation, but older kids and adult fans of the Warners et al will be sorely disappointed.
*Why is it that cartoon characters can have nephews and nieces but never their own kids? Why is it okay to suggest that Slappy Squirrel (or Scrooge McDuck, or Sylvester the cat) has a brother or sister who obviously had sex to produce offspring, but not okay to just give in and admit that she has probably done the nasty, too?