Wednesday, August 09, 2006

DVD Review: Animaniacs Volume 1

In 1990, Steven Spielberg helped usher in what some would later call the "Silver Age" of Warner Bros. Animation with the animated kids' show Tiny Toon Adventures. With Spielberg as executive producer and a talented crew of animators, writers, voice actors, and composers behind the scenes, it became a big success. The next Spielberg/WB collaboration to follow that hit was Animaniacs. Premiering in 1993, Animaniacs took everything Tiny Toon Adventures did to the next level. This animated gem is finally available on DVD and fortunately, it is just as great as it was 13 years ago.

The stars of Animaniacs are the Warner brothers Yakko and Wakko and their sister Dot. This trio of kids are cartoon characters that were created in the 1930's. They caused so much havoc at the studio that they get locked up in the Warner Bros. water tower. They escape in the present time and cause havoc for studio psychiatrist Dr. Scratchnsniff, CEO Thaddeus Plotz, Ralph the Security Guard, and the studio nurse (or "Hello, Nurse!" as Yakko and Wakko like to call her). Part zany cartoons and part Marx Brothers, the Warners are the most prominent part of Animaniacs.

However, the Warners are just one part of a menagerie of characters. These other characters star in their own cartoons as well and give the show a variety and flexibility that few animated comedies have today. These characters include:

Pinky & The Brain: The only Animaniacs characters to spinoff and get their own show, they are genetically altered lab mice who try to take over the world in each cartoon. The Brain is a hilarious sendup of Orson Welles while Pinky is kind-hearted but incredibly dim.

Slappy Squirrel: Slappy is a retired Looney Tunes star who takes care of her nephew Skippy. Featuring great voice work and dialogue by writer/creator Sherri Stoner, Slappy Squirrel cartoons skewer both old Hollywood and old cartoon conventions.

Buttons & Mindy: Mindy is a cute but overly inquisitive child and Buttons is the faithful dog who is always put in charge of her safety. These cartoons are somewhat of a parody of Lassie but they also work as a none-too-subtle jab at parents who don't parent.

The Goodfeathers: This parody of Goodfellas paints the three main characters from that film as pigeons. The quality of these cartoons are hit-or-miss.

Rita & Runt: These cartoons revolve around Rita, a sassy cat voiced by Bernadette Peters, and Runt, a dog who doesn't realize that Rita is a cat. These cartoons are almost always musical.

Chicken Boo: These bizarre cartoons revolve around Chicken Boo, a human-sized, non-anthropomorphic chicken who tries to blend in with humanity.

Katie Kaboom: Katie is a teenage girl who literally becomes a monster when she gets angry.

The Hip Hippos: These cartoons about a couple of rich endangered hippos are the only ones that are consistently unfunny.

In addition to the regular cartoons, there are interstitials that keep things fresh and interesting. They range from the Warners figuring out new ways to escape their water tower to a boy telling stories about his friend, a mime that has bad things happen to him, and the Goofus and Gallant-esque "Good Idea/Bad Idea." You really never know what to expect in each episode and the only things you're guaranteed to see in each episode are the Warners.

Animaniacs is really more of a family show than a kids one. Kids will love the slapstick humor and parents will like that this show even has its educational moments (the great "Yakko's World," for example). At the same time, there is plenty for the adults to enjoy including pop culture references and sly dialogue that will fly right over the kiddies' heads.

Volume 1 of Animaniacs contains the first 25 episodes of the first season across five discs. The packaging of this release is very well-done. The front cover nicely combines the flat and the glossy while the digipak containing the discs features a lot of brand-new artwork. My only complaint with the packaging is with the overlapping style trays that contain discs 1-2 and discs 3-4. In order to get to disc 2, for example, you have to take disc 1 out.

The audio on this release is very nice. Each episode has been remixed in 5.1 channel sound and the remix especially highlights the show's wonderful music. However, the video leaves a little to be desired. It's dirtier than you'd expect and some episodes may not look that good if you play them on a computer or a HDTV. I hope that on the next release, Warner cleans up the video a little better.

The biggest disappointment of the set is the special features. Apart from some trailers on disc 5, there is only one special feature. That special feature is "Animaniacs Live!", an interview of the various voice artists of the show presided over by Maurice LaMarche, the voice of The Brain. This 20-plus minute featurette appears on disc 3 and is a joy to watch. The voice actors seem to all like each other and it's fun to see the faces behind the characters. However, this featurette also reminds you of what could've been. Why is there not a single commentary to be found on this set? I'd kill for just one commentary with the voice actors behind Yakko, Wakko, and Dot.

From its stellar writing and voice acting to its excellent orchestral score and refreshing variety, Animaniacs is certainly one of the best animated TV shows of the 1990's, if not one of the best ever. This is a high-class production that certainly belongs in the collection of any animation or comedy lover. If you haven't seen the show before and want to check it out before you think of buying the DVD set, then go to AOL's free In2TV service where you can watch streaming versions of many of the episodes contained on the DVD. With Animaniacs (and Pinky & The Brain) finally on DVD, I hope to see the other Spielberg/WB shows (especially the cult classic Freakazoid!) on their way to DVD soon.

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