When it comes to beloved and favored cartoon shows from the 1990s, Steven Spielberg’s Animaniacs is perhaps one of the most frequently mentioned. While I do like the show as much as the next member of Generation Y, I find its overwhelming fan favor to be unfair. I may be on the losing end of this cultural battle, but I feel that the show’s immediate predecessor, Tiny Toon Adventures, to be the superior show, and the more culturally relevant (Although this is also merely academic, as they are both inferior to Freakazoid!).
Tiny Toon Adventures, for those of you who are unenlightened on the matter, was a daily cartoon series that ran on WB networks from 1990 until 1992 and wracked up an impressive 100 episodes. It was also spun off into a very good straight-to-video feature film called How I Spent My Vacation, as well as two additional TV specials in 1994. The premise of the show was exceedingly novel for its time: Youthful 12-year-old 1990s-friendly counterparts of well-known Warner Bros. cartoon characters lived together in a shared cartoon universe called Acme Acres (perhaps an analogue for a suburb outside of Burbank, CA) where they attended a Junior High School (Acme Looniversity) learning how to be better cartoons. Their lessons involved math and history, but also anvil dropping and wild takes.
The characters were all direct analogues to previous WB figures. The show’s main characters, Buster and Babs Bunny (no relation) were rascally, cool versions of Bugs Bunny. Plucky Duck was an egotistical version of Daffy. Hampton J. Pig was a gentle neat freak version of Porky. And so on. They may have been distaff counterparts, but the Tiny Toons were most certainly their own animals; they had unique voices and personalities, and were able to hold their own when their heroes interacted with them (oh yes, the Looney Tunes were the professors at Acme Looniversity).
While the notion of “youthing up” previously known characters had been done before (who can forget shows like The Flintstones Kids or A Pup Named Scooby Doo? Besides everyone?), it had never been done with this much thoughtfulness. Previous iterations were often presented as the children of well-known characters (Popeye and The Pink Panther had kids), or just well-known characters at an earlier stage in their lives (Muppet Babies, f’rinstance). The Tiny Toons were new characters entirely. They may have been modeled after the Looney Tunes in both design and personality, but they were also funny and exciting in their own right.
There is something kind of perfect in the approach taken by the showrunners of Tiny Toon Adventures. They wanted to update the Looney Tunes ethos for a ’90s generation, so they created what was, in essence, a remix. They heavily quoted a well-known cultural force, but redressed it. All of a sudden, ’90s kids could not only enjoy the antics of Buster and Babs and all their buddies, but were also getting an underhanded lesson in older characters and the way the older cartoons operated. We had all of the contemporary ’40s pop references, but now updated to contemporary ’90s references. We still had the playful, rascally urban feeling of the ’40s cartoons, but in a ’90s suburban milieu.
Youthful distaff counterparts. New characters that directly resemble old characters. An ethos of updating an old story in a new generation’s clothes. Lot’s of cultural quotation, but still emerging as an exciting unit all its own. What else could I be describing? Oh yes, a little independent flick called Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Perhaps you’ve heard of it.
While watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I began to see the parallels to Tiny Toon Adventures right away, and I said as much to my moviegoing companion. This film is not a bold new chapter in an ongoing saga. The story was too similar to the 1977 original to be a “new chapter.” The characters weren’t a creative new rogue’s gallery of fresh faces, but fresh faces draped over the personalities of character we previously knew. The more I thought about it, the closer the two became.
Consider: Bugs Bunny was split into a younger male and female couple in Buster and Babs. Luke Skywalker was, in The Force Awakens, effectively split into a male protagonist and a female protagonist in the forms of Finn and Rey. Just as Yosemite Same became Montana Max, Darth Vader became Kylo Ren. Just as Daffy became Plucky, Han Solo became Poe Dameron. Just as the Roadrunner became Little Beeper, R2-D2 became BB-8. And just as Wile E. Coyote became Calamity Coyote, Grand Moff Tarkin became General Hux. I’ll leave it to you to intuit the remaining character analogies.
(The Star Wars prequels are, by this analogy, Space Jam.)
And, just like in Tiny Toon Adventures, the older generation could interact with the newer generation. Hence why Han Solo/Daffy Duck could interact with Finn & Rey/Buster & Babs. The new landscape of The Force Awakens was, then a broadened landscape with larger and more complex interactions than in the previous Star Wars films. Very much the way Acme Acres brought a new geography to the world of the Looney Tunes. We now had a greater sense of spacial continuity.
There are other analogies as well. Rey, for instance, is being hailed as a feminist icon for her heroism and her place at the center of the new Star Wars story arc. Babs Bunny, meanwhile, remains a terrific role model for young girls, as she is talented, forthright, funny, and an unabashed spaz. Both of these new female versions of previously male characters have emerged as the stars of their universes; yes, Babs was more or less the star of the show. Buster was more the cool emcee.
Even the very story of The Force Awakens has been given the Tiny Toons treatment; indeed, this is the most persistent criticism of the new film. The story is, directly and beat-for-beat, a retelling of the 1977 original, right down to the big reveals and the unexpected relationships between the characters. In a way, the story of Star Wars has become a character unto itself in the pop consciousness. But now, with The Force Awakens, the story is bigger, brighter, faster, slicker. The ships are zippier, the explosions bigger and more frequent, and the Death Star even more death-y. It’s a hip, 2015 update of a known 1977 figure.
(To briefly addressing the popular criticism I will say this: in a world supposedly marked by imagination and expansive childhood adventure, it’s a pity that we have to tell the same story over and over. But at least it’s an enjoyable story.)
Tiny Toon Adventures is, I feel, something of a revolutionary show, and the characters are rich, fun, relatable, and very real. It changed the way we think about updating old properties for a new generation. It’s so influential, in fact, that 25 years after its inception, Star Wars copied its approach. The Force Awakens is a pretty good flick. But Tiny Toon Adventures was here first.
Witney Seibold has been a film critic for nearly 20 years, and is currently the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast on CraveOnline. You can contact him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold.
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This makes me want to go back and watch Tiny Toons for their great homages to movie franchises. I think what Tiny Toons and Star Wars did so well was cheekily lean into the nostalgia factor to build on what came before as opposed to something like Star Trek that played more like a greatest hits album.