Sunday, May 24, 2009

We Had a Little Doggie, We Used To Call Him Fred, But Now We Call Him Nothing, The Reason Is He's Dead

After another Animaniacs discussion on a message board, I thought I would come back here and create another chapter in the story of my ongoing refusal to apologize for liking it. Anyway, one of the differences between the show on Fox and on the WB is that most of the WB episodes presented the characters as less mean, or at least less aggressive. This seemed to be an attempt by the writers to get away from the formula they had created in the year on Fox, where the three main characters would get revenge on some kind of authority figure. The first season on the WB had several cartoons that basically admitted that the writers were tired of this formula or at least felt that it was played out; if the final volume of episodes ever comes out on DVD -- which seems increasingly unlikely -- it'll start with this cartoon:

Breaking away from formula and getting more self-referential had actually helped the quality of Tiny Toons, where the final 35 episodes are generally of higher quality than the first 65. Though "Animaniacs" had a number of good cartoons on the WB, the change in formula seems to have hurt more than it helped, especially when it came to the cartoons with Yakko/Wakko/Dot. Although their cartoons were not "classic" cartoons, they worked better in something resembling a classic cartoon format: simple, strong premise which can give rise to a series of gags that are related to the premise, and a satisfying ending. When they're put in other types of stories -- either long-form stories like the two-part "Hooray For North Hollywood" (originally thought of as a story for an Animaniacs movie) or full-length movie parodies, they wind up standing around and not doing very much. Looking back on it, there are a lot of WB-era "Animaniacs" cartoons where nothing much happens until the cartoon is half over.

But on an up note, here is one of the WB-era cartoons I like the best (and the one which would induce me to buy a vol. 4 DVD if it ever came out). It could have been another static movie-parody cartoon, but as written by Paul Rugg (who really seemed to like these three characters, or at least write them as likable; it isn't easy to avoid making them three smug little assholes, but he usually did it), it abandons the movie premise pretty quickly and becomes a story about cartoon logic: if a cartoon character can only attack when provoked, then what happens when their antagonist never actually provokes them by being mean or rude? The Simpsons did a somewhat similar episode a year later when a Mary Poppins-type nanny came to live with the Simpsons; Animaniacs did it better.


Chris L. said...

I find it fascinating that the only people who seem to really hate Animaniacs are hardcore animation snobs, but since they dominate online animation discussions, it makes it look like the consensus opinion about the show is much more negative than it really is. You look on more general discussion sites and you find that it's still very fondly remembered by the public at large.

Kevin W. Martinez said...

Chris L,

That's because the hardcore animation snobs only hate Animaniacs and Pinky and the Brain because of how the shows were made (with scripts dominating instead of storyboards and maybe less input from the artists). General animation fans who don't care about those things judge them by how good the cartoons actually are.

Thad said...

Personally, I never liked Animaniacs just because it actually isn't good.

Kevin W. Martinez said...

See, Thad. You have a legitimate reason not to like Animaniacs. John K. only hates it because it's not a "real" cartoon, and his thousands of submoron followers just parrot what he says.

zgeycp said...

The thing is that Animaniacs was pretty uneven. There's a lot of great stuff you can point to if you want to praise the show, but there were also a lot of relatively unmemorable cartoons in the bunch as well.

Plato said...

The Sound of Warners was a good cartoon, although I think the conflict between the sibs and Prunella is the weakest part. They ought to have got along with each other famously. (Of course, then what would happen to the plot? Well, just have Plotz fire her for having too much fun when he's paying her to work or something....)

The best stories are the ones where the Warners are annoying (or at least, er, highly rambunctious) to the protagonist — but not to the audience because we can see they're only trying to help; for example, Cookies for Einstein (also by Rugg) or Hooked on a Ceiling, where they actually do end up helping.

The problem with the moral justifications is that Slappy actually doesn't act without provocation. Although obviously modelled as a wacky Averian character, in A! she has a very Jonesque attitude. It's the Warners themselves, older and zanier, who ought to be the anarchic lunatics. Indeed, their response to the father in the meta-clip is hardly morally proportionate: in the space of a few seconds, they're guilty of breaking and entering, theft, and assault and battery — and they started it.

I think the later episodes show a shift in the writers' perspective, as they become more familiar with the characters; they start to identify with them more, and that leads to more fourth-wall breaking (Really? More? Could there be? Well, perhaps more of a certain kind...), more of the characters' representing our point of view; that even explains the more sympathetic edge as well, I imagine. (In other words, as the creators become more like fans, the stories become more like fanfic! Hm.)

-David "apologies for being so on-topic" Green

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Indeed, their response to the father in the meta-clip is hardly morally proportionate: in the space of a few seconds, they're guilty of breaking and entering, theft, and assault and battery — and they started it.I always (from the moment I saw it, in 1996 -- God, it seems so long ago) took that as part of the joke, which is the arbitrariness of cartoon morality. If someone says three mean words to a cartoon character, then he's been "provoked" and can therefore commit the most horrible, disproportionate acts.

In a way, John Kricfalusi would enjoy the theme of this cartoon, if not the cartoon itself, because part of the theme is that the rules separating a "likable" and "moral" cartoon character from an "unlikable," "immoral" one make no sense at all.

The difference between the Warners and Slappy is that the Warners were usually portrayed as having a certain innocence and not really intending to drive people crazy. Slappy -- not always, but sometimes, like in "I Got Yer Can" -- deliberately sets out to destroy her victims, and she really enjoys delivering unjust punishment in cartoons like "Critical Condition." Unlike the Warners and Skippy, who are just kids, Slappy is an old woman and always knows what she's doing and why she does it: she likes violence. (That's why the Three Tenors cartoon didn't really work, because Slappy was so clueless for most of its length. She needs to be smart and mean.)

Plato said...

I took that as part of the joke...I thought of that when I was writing my message, but even the fact that it didn't stand out that way to me before says something. Of course, you're right about the Warner's innocence, which comes across in Einstein and Ceiling, and even Drive In-sane — but not in Anchors Awarners.

At least in a genuine Avery hunting-cartoon, the characters were being threatened with death, which makes pretty much any retaliation fair game. Maybe if the Warners had been an identifiable species, more potential Special Friends would have tried to eat them.... Without a natural enemy, the adversial storylines never seemed to work as well; I get the feeling that sometimes they were a bit of a cop-out because writing plots that don't centre around good old standard conflict are harder.

[the rules] make no sense at all.Maybe that's my problem. Everything else in cartoons always made perfect sense to me!

Slappy is an old woman and always knows what she's doing and why she does it: she likes violence....or is that just propaganda spread by Slappy herself in order distill fear into her enemies?
Consider that one of the best, and best-loved, Slappy shorts is Bumbie's Mom, which contains no violence at all! (That poor doggie doesn't count, that was just for educational purposes.) Or consider her fiendish masterstroke at Woodstock. Coming up with a suitable justification for the violence is probably the hardest part of Slappy cartoons; I think I Got Yer Can is acceptable escalating cartoon hyperbole — Slappy didn't start it. On the other hand, I recall a general consensus that Critical Condition didn't provide us with satisfying enough justification, even in Slappy's universe. (And likewise for Tenors — the fact that her victims hadn't done anything wrong was as jarring as her cluelessness. Maybe if she had just been spying on the field from a convenient tree branch, but she looked like she paid for a seat — surely it said something on the ticket!)

Anyway, I still say the Warners would never have even thought to get annoyed with the frolicking fraulein because her personality was, frankly, to act like a human Warner brother! Or a human Warner sister.

-David "O tempora, o morales, oh Prunella!" Green

Mr. Semaj said...

Chris L,

Some animation purists create controversy out of the dumbest things.

For those who follow John K's example in berating Animaniacs, John threw a bunch of his own audience into the very terrain he's at constant war with. One of the same TV critics who gave Ren & Stimpy's Games episodes unfair reviews suggested that a large portion of the Animaniacs audience were those who gave up on R & S after John got fired. And supposedly, John encouraged people thru cartoon magazine interviews and reviews to tune out after the fact.

Rick Roberts said...

It would be funny if they didn't end pull out a perdictable Tex Avery cliche every secound or pop culture reference. Also, needless to say, the voice acting was like listening to a cat being strangled. The Warner Brothers and Sister are the epitome of low standards in voice acting today.

Rick Roberts said...

BTW, saying that the general public likes something more then a fan is a moot point. That can be said for any subject because the general public dosen't care as much.

Mattieshoe said...

>>Also, needless to say, the voice acting was like listening to a cat being strangled. The Warner Brothers and Sister are the epitome of low standards in voice acting today.<<

Rob Paulsen and Tress MacNeille actually surprised me in some of their earlier episodes with their appealing (no, that's not a typo) voice work. Rob seemed to have a particularly grating voice, but he toned down the screeching when he did yakko at first. Yakko originally had a sort of streetwise Groucho Marx voice. It's only evident in a few episodes, but I find it really fitting and fun, especially considering it's coming out of Rob Paulsen.

Tress did the same thing with Dot. she actually made the voice sound cute, as apposed to her usual annoying voice work.

These guys seemed to have really strained to make these voices as pleasant to listen to as possible (given the characters themselves).

This appeal had dissipated by the time "The Sound of Warners" was recorded. Their voices got less and less inspired and less and less cute, until it was evident that the voice actors (and perhaps the voice director) had stopped trying. it all became completely stale and annoying, like you said.