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Animaniacs, Season 1/
Pinky & The Brain, v. 1

Many pay homage to the inspired insanity of Termite Terrace. Few have been able to successfully update it, seamlessly creating something new. In the early nineties, Steven Spielberg managed to segue from Tiny Toons Adventures (not nearly as insipid as it sounds) to the brilliant Animaniacs.

Every day after school, kids of the nineties got a bizarre and sneakily intelligent collage of pop culture parody, lunacy and outright high quality cartooning. This wasn't just with the creation of Wakko, Yakko and Dot Warner, but carrying over into characters like Slappy Squirrel, Chicken Boo, Goodfeathers and the characters that got their own spin-off, Pinky and the Brain.

For whatever reason, they've faded a bit from consciousness. (It hurts to not have Warner Brothers Studio Stores around.) Though Animaniacs have been around on VHS, it's been a long wait for a DVD collection.

Today, the wait ends. Warner Home Video has put together a good six-disc set of the first season. What's so amazing about watching the whole thing in order is just how good it was right from the outset.

How many funny animal shows actually begin with an origin sequence? Yet it works, explaining why we'd never seen them before - and for animation fans, explaining why they have such a retro look - and then covering their impact on the Warner lot.

Then they go into a musical number that introduces a few of the other characters, setting the tone for the fun and chaos that would follow. Emulating the development of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies simultaneously, Animaniacs threw a lot at the wall to see what stuck. Some ideas were sublime, like the Warners themselves, and some…well, you can take issue with me, but only once did I find Chicken Boo funny. (Guess which episode).

Heck, the whole season even ends on a classy note, with Yakko performing Puck's closing monologue from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Of course, it doesn't quite go as planned and has to be saved by a certain midsummer Dark Knight.

In addition to literature, Animaniacs dipped into history (inspiring the later Histeria!), science and geography. Having been to a couple of voice-over artist panels at Comic-Con, we can indeed vouch that Rob Paulsen (Yakko) does repeatedly get requests to sing Yakko's Geography song.

Speaking of Paulsen, the show features a who's who of voice-over talent. Though many of the artists like Paulsen do multiple roles, voice director Andrea Romano also brought in actors for specifics, fitting a character to talent with laser precision. For the recurring Broadway parody "Rita and Runt," Bernadette Peters stepped in at the last minute to play the singing cat Rita. Heck, you can even catch Tom Bodett leaving a light on for you as he narrates a few segments.

Overall, the disc skimps on extras, though one really great thing Warner Home Video did was put chapter stops on each individual segment in each episode. That makes it really great for showing a kid their favorite character or bit again and again.

The extra information gets condensed into one half-hour interview session hosted by Maurice LaMarche (The Brain and Ray Liotta-esque Squit Pigeon). The veteran voice actor and former stand-up hosts conversations with Paulsen, Tresse MacNeille and Jess Harnell, reuniting the three Warners for the first time in a while.

From there, LaMarche interviews Sherri Stoner, a writer on the series and voice of Slappy Squirrel, the retired animated character constantly brought back into hijinks by her nephew. Running past Romano to composers Julie and Steven Bernstein, the documentary manages to be informative while staying casually conversational. It has a few moments of forced levity, but overall, LaMarche keeps it flowing and feeling real.

He also gets the spotlight in the second DVD set available today, Pinky and the Brain. Culled from the spin-off series, this isn't actually a first season set. Instead, it's twenty-two of the best episodes. Or so they say. It seems to be missing the episode in which LaMarche finally got to pay complete tribute to inspiration Orson Welles and do the infamous "peas" commercial. Maybe that one's too inside, but if you know voice-over work, that bit KILLS.

Come to think of it, that may have happened back on Animaniacs, thus proving that the characters were a bit stronger in smaller doses. Yet the episodes here are still entertaining.

The four-disc set is also light on extras, with a slightly more freewheeling featurette as the actors reminisce.

To bring it full circle, though, the most surprising thing about the two series would be how committed producer Spielberg actually was. Clearly, when the shows worked best, the master storyteller kept an eye on things, contributing story ideas and notes.

That's not to say we should lay all the credit at his feet. The cast and crew that worked on these shows really deserve the kudos. If not consistently funny, they were consistently clever, and when funny, they were hilarious.

Animaniacs, Vol. 1

Pinky and the Brain, Vol. 1

Derek McCaw


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