Animaniacs: Wakko’s Wish (1999) | Animated and Underrated

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Welcome to the 2nd part of my look at the two Steven Speilberg produced Warner Brothers direct-to-video films, animated by the great Tokyo Movie Shinsha. Today we have the Animaniacs film, Wakko’s Wish.

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The story revolves around Yakko, Wakko, and Dot, of course, who have been living as poor and destitute orphans for the better part of their lives. But Dot, it seems, is stricken with an unknown illness and requires an operation in order to save her life. And so the Warners have no other choice but for Wakko to go off and seek his fortune elsewhere in order to make enough money to pay for the operation.

But upon Wakko’s return, his single Ha’Penny is taken by Baron Von Plotz, by order of King Salazar: leaving Yakko, Wakko and Dot very few if any options. Desperate and with nowhere else to turn, Wakko makes a wish upon what he figures must be the “Wishing Star,” and luckily picks right. The Star’s representative then comes down and gives Wakko the good news, and tells him to go seek out the wishing star where it has now fallen to Earth. And if he be the first one to touch the star, then he may make his wish.

The very next day, Wakko and his siblings spill the good news to the whole town, which ends up causing everyone to go after the star as well. So the race is on to see who can get to the wishing star first, and claim their prize.

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This story is not meant to be taken entirely seriously. There are a few moments of fourth wall breaking and acknowledgements to the fact that this is a musical feature film rather than a recounting of real life. And so even when the characters have some extremely sweet, heartfelt, or sad moments, it’s all done up for show. I won’t give away much more than that.

The humor is as witty and smart as always, but they don’t try to work in as many if any sexual innuendos like the ones so famously found in the series. They also don’t try to pull as many jokes or physical gags as might be expected, but we do get a fair amount during the second half of the film. And as you’ll see further down, this film was not meant to be your typical Animaniacs fare, but I don’t think it’s any less entertaining for it.

Animaniacs has always been well known for its musical numbers, many of which are burned into my generations’ portion of pop-culture. In my opinion, though, I never really enjoyed the majority of the songs featured on the show, especially during the later seasons like season 4 and 5. However, the musical numbers in Wakko’s Wish are all absolutely delightful. They are very catchy, very singable, and extremely well performed. As one last project for the entire Animaniacs crew, you can feel the comradery throughout the entire cast, especially Yakko, Wakko and Dot: performed by Rob Paulson, Jess Harnell, and Tress MacNeille respectively. Those three really know how to have fun and play off each other, and they really know how to harmonize. It’s amazing to listen to them because you can tell that they had to have recorded in the same room together, as they usually did.

Speaking on those three actors’ in particular, I think this may be one of Rob Paulson’s best performances that he’s ever given, because he doesn’t often get to read soft or passionate lines. Usually he plays surfer dudes, country bumpkins, or high pitched characters with a twang in their voice. But here, he’s having to be a loving and caring brother to his sister Dot, and tell her bedtimes stories and be really sweet and loving. The same goes for Tress MacNeille as Dot, and Jess Harnell: who gives some of the softest sweetest singing I’ve ever heard him do.

The scenes between Yakko and Dot are just precious, and even very sad near the end. Even if it is all played up for show within the film itself, you still can’t help but tear up when you watch these moments. Top-notch work from everyone.

Just like with Jonathan Winters in Tiny Toons: How I Spent My Vacation, we have another celebrity voice joining the cast. This time it’s Paxton Whitehead, who some of you may know as Dr. Phillip Barbay from Rodney Dangerfield’s Back To School.

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Paxton plays the ever selfish and brutish King Salazar, ruler of Tick-Tockia, who swept into the Kingdom after the death of the King and Queen of Warnerstock. (a play on the Time and Warner Brothers merger that occurred around 1998).

All of the other voice actors return as well. Frank Welker as Mr Plotz, Sherri Stoner as Slappy Squirrel, Nancy Cartwright as Mindy; Chick Vennera and John Mariano as Pesto and Bobby of the Goodfeathers; Bernadette Peters as the graceful voiced Rita the cat, Ben Stein as Pip the “Desire Fullfillment Facilitator” of the Wishing Star, Paul Rugg as Mr. Director, and even Julie Brown as Minerva Mink. The only actor I felt was lacking was Nathan Ruegger, who by this point was getting a little too old for the part of Skippy Squirrel, so they really had to overdo the post-processing on his voice to make him still sound young and squeaky. At least the film itself acknowledged that he wasn’t a very good singer. He was serviceable, but he was probably the worst of the cast by comparison.

And lastly, we have Tom Bodett, host of “Another Good Idea, Bad Idea” as our narrator for the day. And a fitting narrator at that.

A few odd things I’d like to mention before we get further along. I noticed two strange things that popped up while watching the film.

The first is that some of the background characters may be very familiar to those of you who know a bit of animation history.

The Dover Boys of Pimento University, characters immortalized in cartoon form by Warner Brothers great, Chuck Jones, are featured heavily in the background of most musical numbers throughout the film. Although they do not go off on their own journey towards the Wishing Star, they’re only seen in the town square of Acme Falls. Kind of an odd inclusion though, don’t you think. Bet most of you never even noticed.

The other odd thing I saw was when Pip, now calling himself the “Desire Fulfillment Facilitator,” appears to Wakko as a green glowing orb, which illuminates the room in an eerie green glow. Very reminiscent of another glowing green orb from a very particular late 70s animated anthology film: Heavy Metal. Also a random inclusion, but an intriguing one to find in the midst of this otherwise typical animated feature.

As I said before, the music is extremely good in this film. Much better than the last few seasons of the show, and it remains the main highlight of this feature-length film.

There’s about 10 songs featured in the film in total, 5 of which were full length tracks, and the rest much smaller riffs. But I’m able to feature and speak on 7 in total, which you can see below. (Disclaimer: The following videos may not always be available, so I will try to replace them with new links when possible.)

Track 1: “Never Give Up Hope”

For an opening song, it fits right in with that staple style of establishing as many things as possible about your characters and their situation in one fell swoop. Beauty and the Beast  did it, Tangled did it, and Frozen did it. But you know what, this, and every other song in this film is better than the opening numbers of both Tangled and Frozen combined.

“When Will My Life Begin” tries to sound like a country inspired guitar solo song: the kind that Disney did around 2003-2006, but just doesn’t have the right lyrics to fit the style. And “For the First Time In Forever” forces a really lazy and dorky string of observations into the middle of a song simply trying to express an honest and beautiful concept. I know that it may seem like it makes the song more honest to have Anna talk about her gas problems or the curtains never opening or how many plates her castle has because if you instantly burst into song, that’s probably what you’d talk about. But it just ends up making the song sound lame and out of touch with professional lyrical construction. It’s a trend that seems to be a part of the current decade, and I hope it goes away soon enough.

So anyway, “Never Give Up Hope” is a great way to start this film off. And the songs only get better and more likable from there.

Track 2: “Train Bringing Wakko”

A play on the “Wells Fargo Wagon” song from The Music Man, it’s a rather short but enjoyably humorous tune that has a good bounce to it.

Track 3: “I’ve Got A Ha’Penny” and “So Much For Wakko’s Ha’Penny.”

Much like “Never Give Up Hope,” this song covers a lot of different things in a short amount of time: talking about all the possible things that Wakko could buy with his new found wealth.

Track 4: “Twinkle, Twinkle”

A slight twist on the actual “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” song, this rendition intends to give Wakko a means by which to make the right decision in picking the “actual” wishing star out of the thousands upon thousands of other candidates. Because only he is able to pick the real wishing star, which causes the star to fall to Earth for him to make his wish upon.

Track 5: “The Wishing Star”

The absolute best song in the whole film. Bar none.

And although the lyrics are repeated and reworked by other characters during the story, this initial segment sung by Yakko, Wakko and Dot is the best version. I mean, my God. I’m sorry Rob, but give “Nations of the World” a rest and sing this song again with your pals Jess and Tress. I would give ya’ll a dang standing ovation for a half hour if you would just do this one again.

Then again I can’t know for sure if you have or not. But if you haven’t, then you totally need to do a revival of this soundtrack on stage. I insist!

Track 6: “Hungarian Rhapsody”

A direct continuation and subsection of “The Wishing Star,” the “Hungarian Rhapsody” portion gives an interlude by which the other citizens of Acme Falls can realize what’s going on and start on their own journeys towards the wishing star. After which the other Wishing Star sections pick up again, and repeat for other characters over the course of the film.

Track 7: “If I could Have My Wish, Then I’d Be Happy”

This last major track serves as a way for each character to express their wishes and desires that they hope to ask the star for once they get there.

And in direct relation to that, I initially found it odd, as some other viewers did, that every single major Animaniacs characters was present during this film. But upon seeing the ending resolution to the film, I realized that they were all here because they were each meant to have their conflicts from their different Animaniacs segments resolved. The Goodfeathers would now be recognized for who they think they are. Hello Nurse would have a job and position that speaks for her brains and not her body. Mr. Plotz’ character would be in charge of something that doesn’t subjugate others. Pinky would get to be with his horsey love, Pharfignuten. Brain would become a high-ranking advisor in charge of giving sound advice: which is at least one step closer to being where he wants to be in life. Buttons gets rewarded for being loyal to Mindy and keeping her safe. Mindy finally calls her mother “Mommy” rather than “lady.” Rita and Runt finally get a home of their own with Dr. Scratch’n’Sniff. And the Warners are now the rulers of a kingdom and no longer live in a water tower.

The only person who doesn’t really get a resolution is Minerva Mink, who despite not being shown in the series very much, had a recurring gag with Wilford Wolf trying to get close to Minerva in order to ask her out on a date, but she would always refuse him. Until of course he was revealed to turn into a hunky Wolf-man whenever the moon rose high in the sky. Minerva’s character was the least used here, and perhaps that’s only fair since her character never had much happen with her during the series. But I would think this could have been the opportunity to do more with her and to tone down some of the other side characters instead. Like use Slappy Squirrel less and use Hello Nurse less. But who knows?

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In terms of animation, the group over at TMS provides their usual level of skill and finesse, at least as much as they could muster at this point in their studio’s history. By 1998, the studio’s overseas bracket seems to have been downsized since they weren’t working on nearly as many western projects by the late 90s. And as far as I know, they no longer have any US projects these days. So Wakko’s Wish, and one of my previously reviewed titles, An American Tail: Treasure of Manhattan Island became two of the last feature-length projects that TMS did for Hollywood.

The quality of animation is a tad rougher in spots than they were just a few years earlier. And in one instance they even resorted to using computer graphics to create a rotating camera shot, but they only use it once. Which begs the question why did they do it at all, but whatever. They also were doing all of their ink-and-paint digitally by the late 90s as well. And as with many Japanese companies making this transition, it doesn’t look very polished. The whites look too bright, the color choices are perhaps too vibrant, and the background paintings seem a bit rushed. All of which can be expected, but is still unfortunate, as Tokyo Movie Shinsha were masters of western-styled animation during their hay-day in the late 80s.

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The main point of contention with critics and fans regarding this film seems to be its choice to focus on a more serious story with more pathos than is typically expected of an Animaniacs story. However, Animaniacs, much more so than Tiny Toons, already had a track-record to having a more serious tone with some of its episodes and story, especially when it came to the Rita and Runt segments. The show would also periodically have smaller segments that poked fun at the stylistic tendencies of Disney and other Disney-ish productions with their over-done musical numbers, their grand scale, and their Oscar-worthy acting.

So knowing that, it is not at all surprising to me that the Animaniacs story team would decide to approach a feature length film in this manner: with the characters all thrown into a fictional universe with its own social rules and structure. It’s a film designed to work off of and somewhat satirize award-winning musical plays and theater, as well as musical films of the time. Perhaps even the upcoming Anastasia to a degree, which was also in 1999.

The writers of Animaniacs were the same ones who had created Tiny Toons. And during their time on Tiny Toons they were given a bit of a leash which ran-in their story ideas to fit a certain pattern and demographic. But once they were given the green-light for Animaniacs, they used the show as a platform to test out all kinds of things and an enormously varied cast of characters. Some of which you may not even remember anymore. But because of this, they also tried to do more serious segments with a more mature tone to them. Which is why when they were able to make this film, they took it in the direction that they did.

So while I do agree that even I found this film a bit jarring and some parts skippable when I was a kid, that doesn’t mean this film is bad or poorly conceived. The writers clearly wanted to make this film for a long time, and so I don’t blame them for its mixed reception.

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In fact, this film was nominated for four Annie Awards with regards to production, music, and voice acting on the part of a male and female actor. And is considered one of the “Top 60 Animated Features Never Theatrically Released in the United States” by the Animated Movie Guide. A well-deserved title.

If you are indeed an Animaniacs fan, then you know the drill. Go out and buy a newly minted DVD copy of this film right now. Very likely you will not be disappointed, especially if you love the music typically found in this franchise.

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