When Animaniacs returns tomorrow, the Hulu-revived animated classic will bring back its original cast in a series of episodes featuring all-new adventures of Yakko (Rob Paulsen), Wakko (Jess Harnell), Dot (Tress MacNeille), Pinky (Paulsen again) and The Brain (Maurice LaMarche). Back in action for the first time in more than 20 years, the Warner Bros. (and the Warner sister) will try to find their way through a new world that has been shaped by the internet and fed a steady stream of cynical satire like South Park. There's a hope built in to Animaniacs, if only by virtue of the premise: 22 years ago, somebody finally caught the escaped siblings, but now they're free again and seeing the world through new eyes.
It's probably no coincidence that the series heads back to the '90s, though, and starts with a scene riffing on Jurassic Park. After all, the cast credit producer Steven Spielberg with reviving the series.
"I'm the cynic of the group," LaMarche joked. "I always said if they bring it back, they'll do a bunch of celebrity stunt casting. Peter Dinklage will play the Brain, Russell Brand will play Pinky. It renewed my faith in humanity, and certainly in Steven Spielberg, which I never lost of course, but Steven pitched the show, saying nobody else can play the characters except for our original voices."
"Anytime you have the king of Hollywood going to bat for you? I mean, come on!" Rob Paulsen added. "But no, I think we had so many well meaning fans who would give us this wonderful compliment about how 'You should come back, you should come back.' [We said], respectfully, that's not our call. That's not our 20 or 50 million bucks. But when the right guy -- namely Mr. Spielberg -- says yeah, I think we've got to do this, Sam Register made it happen, the Warner Bros. animation chief, and obviously Hulu. And moreover, Mr. Spielberg was so integral to the process. He went to every pitch. This wasn't just like, 'Yeah, let's make a cartoon.' He went to every pitch, made sure the folks at Hulu, Netflix, Apple, and Amazon, knew that Steven Spielberg was on board, and here we are."
During the course of the interview, we posed a question to Futurama veteran LaMarche, which proved to be Paulsen's favorite of the conversation. What, if anything, could he bring to the table, in terms of teaching people how to handle being un-cancelled?
"Tress [MacNeille] and I both have done that dance a couple of times," LaMarche laughed. "The only advice that I hope came through, not in my words but in my attitude, was gratitude. I don't think I need to show these guys how to be grateful. We know how lucky we are to be back doing this amazing thing. The thing was literally the happiest experience of my entire animated career."
That gratitude shows through across the board, with each actor enthusiastically agreeing as the others explain how happy they were to be back and how lucky they felt that the series endures.
"We've all had this experience of people saying 'you were my childhood,'" Harnell explained. "And luckily since we've all managed to continue working at a high level since Animaniacs, every five years there's a new group of people saying we're their childhood. Luckily, with Animaniacs, we've come full circle and so now people who have grown up with it can grow up with it again with their kids next to them."
The trickiest part of the whole endeavor, on some level, was trying to find a tone that balanced the nostalgia and the need to progress. Keeping things rooted in the kind of references and humor that would play in 2020 was a must, but the writers and performers also had to retain what made the characters so lovable in the first place.
"I think the reason that it works is because the balance was struck by Steven putting together an amazing new team," Harnell said. "The guys who are doing it now are eminently qualified to do it. They loved the original show and they wanted to stay true to that spirit, but the primary difference...is that we had a certain amount of stuff to make fun of in the '90s and we have a new batch of stuff to satirize now. It's pretty awesome that Animaniacs is uniquely suited to poke fun at some things that could use some poking."
Animaniacs returns tomorrow on Hulu, for the debut episode of a renewal that will last at least two seasons on the streaming network.