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How the Animaniacs returned with a vengeance (but without their original creator)

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Dec 4, 2020, 3:00 PM EST

After 22 years, three presidential administrations, the rise of streaming media, and the demise of network television cartoon blocks, the Warner Brothers, Yakko and Wakko, and their sister, Princess Angelina Contessa Louisa Francesca Banana-Fana Bo-Besca the Third (aka Dot), returned to our televisions in Hulu’s reboot of Animaniacs

Over the course of 13 episodes in the first of a planned two-season run, the Warners — along with fan-favorites Pinky and the Brain and a small collection of new characters — lampoon, parody, and poke fun at everything, skewering Russian bots, social media, conservative pundits, Warner Bros. hit movies, Edward Snowden, the work of Agatha Christie, and even the concept of reboots themselves. 

For many of us '90s kids who remember following the hijinks of the Warners every day after school or on Saturday mornings, the return of Animaniacs is a time to celebrate, but for the person responsible for the creation of the show, it has brought feelings of displeasure and disappointment. 

As in the original Peabody and Emmy award-winning series, the reboot is executive-produced by Steven Spielberg (who makes an appearance in the opening moments of the series). Wanting to have the series resemble adult animated comedies like Family Guy and American Dad, he placed Family Guy veteran Wellesley Wild as an executive producer and co-showrunner. Speaking with SYFY WIRE over Zoom alongside series co-executive producer Gabe Swarr, Wild says the goal for the reboot was to “keep as much of the original show as possible,” while having the Warners and Pinky and the Brain bringing their chaotic, zany, and referential humor “to all the crap that has been happening in the last four to five years.” 

When the cast — Rob Paulsen (Yakko, Pinky), Jess Harnell (Wakko), Tress MacNellie (Dot), and Maurice LaMarche (Brain) — first got word about Animaniacs getting rebooted during a private dinner with Warner Bros. head of animation Samuel Register, they weren’t exactly sure they would get the chance to voice the characters once again, with Harnell telling The New York Times: “It’s Hollywood, and we’ll see.” 

Once onboard, Harnell made it clear they did not want to be involved if it was not going to live up to the original. “We didn’t want it to be less than, because we didn’t want people to say, ‘Oh, I wish it was like it used to be.’” Their reasonable concerns were quickly dissipated once they saw that Speilberg was going to be involved once again. “That was a big get,” Paulsen says, “because we knew that he would make sure the quality was high.” 

Once the cast met with Wild and got a look at the first scripts, they grew confident that the new series would not diminish the legacy of the original, but would aid in introducing these iconic characters to a new generation. “Thankfully, the characters that we love and that you love are being well taken care of, and well represented,” Paulsen explains.

Hulu/Warner Bros.

One important figure in Animaniacs history who is not accompanying the Warners on their journey to the social media age? Writer and producer Tom Ruegger, the man who created them. Speaking to SYFY WIRE over Zoom earlier in the fall, Ruegger, who also created Tiny Toon Adventures and A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, called Animaniacs, “the series I love the most."

“For five years my job was to laugh,” Ruegger continued. “I laughed while reading the scripts, I laughed during the recording sessions, and I was surrounded by the funniest people I will ever know.” 

Animaniacs is a particularly personal show for Ruegger, who based the Warners on his three sons, and the concept of Pinky and The Brain on the conversations he would overhear between a pair of artists who worked on the series, Tom Mitten and Eddie Fitzgerald. He was open and forthright on his feelings about not being a part of the reboot, saying: “I am disappointed that the original creators were not involved, there were a lot of great artists and writers who made that original show and we all would have loved to have been invited back, but Warners and Amblin own the property, and they decided to go with a new group, that's the story."

While the cast are in agreement that Wild and his team have produced a show that has a level of quality befitting the Animaniacs name, they all acknowledged Ruegger and his team's importance in helping make Animaniacs what it would become. “On an emotional level, we miss them all,” LaMarche admits. "This would not be here if it wasn’t for Tom and the people he got to build this universe with.”

“The fact that we're doing it again speaks volumes about what Tom and his crew did. It is remarkable, a remarkable legacy,” Paulsen echoes.

Over two decades since their last adventure outside the water tower, seeing the Warners once again bother Dr. Scratchansniff, giving a pompous jerk what's coming to him, and taking rightful digs at Hollywood, the Warners first season in widescreen does have the familiar tone of the original. The showrunners and especially the cast have obviously done everything they can to keep the quality of one of the milestones of 1990s animation and popular culture as cutting and witty as it was back before “streaming” was even a thing. 

As for Ruegger, while disappointed that he could no longer be a part of the series he is most proud of and the chance to work again with the cast who he still speaks to regularly, he made it clear that he wants the characters to continue to live on. “I certainly want people to love Animaniacs and if this new show could increase the audience and love for Animaniacs, that would be great, because I love the show and I want it to succeed.”