Now here’s a reboot we can get behind: Steven Spielberg is bringing back his beloved ’90s daytime children’s toon “Animaniacs.” We tend not to get nostalgic; “Animaniacs” is an exception. It wasn’t just for kids — it was for very, very smart kids. And it did what the best kids entertainment did: It prepared the wee ones for grown-up entertainment. No doubt thanks to Spielberg, who executive produced, it slipped in references to movies its target audience probably had no idea existed. How many elementary schoolers had heard of “Apocalypse Now”? Well, there was an entire segment parodying it anyway.
There were many movies we first learned about watching “Animaniacs” as a tween (and later a teen). When we finally got around to watching classics we’d only seen parodied on that show we used to watch, we’d shout, “Hey, just like that ‘Animaniacs’ episode!” Here are some of the show’s most out-there movie nods:
‘Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life’ (Episode 3)
The fourth and final Python film (if you include “And Now for Something Completely Different”) is their bluest, even factoring in the Graham Chapman frontal shot in “Life of Brian.” It had boobs and blood and a lavish musical number about sperm. But here it was, being lampooned on daytime TV, with Yakko singing a loving homage to the film’s lovely (and more or less PG-rated) “Galaxy Song.” On top of that, like the original tune, Yakko’s ditty reflected on the vastness of the cosmos and humanity’s insignificance. This was the show's third-ever episode, and it already seemed like something you just don't do on television, for kids or for adults.
‘Duck Soup’ (Episode 10)
One of the rare episodes that only focused on our central trio, Yakko, Wakko and Dot, with no additional segments, was a full-on homage to the Marx Brothers’ (arguable) finest film, with Yakko standing in for Groucho and Wakko and Dot filling in for Harpo and Chico while they wage perhaps even sillier war.
‘Goodfellas’/‘The Godfather’ (recurring)
It was one of “Animaniacs”’s regular segments: the one called “Goodfeathers,” about pigeons modeled after Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci's hoods, with the occasional "Godfather" yuk. Just to mess with minds even more, one episode had them cast as “actors” in a parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”
‘Apocalypse Now’/‘Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse’ (Episode 20)
Speaking of Francis Ford Coppola. Yakko, Wakko and Dot are sent by Warner Brothers to put a stop to a movie shoot that’s gone way over budget and schedule. They find a filmmaker who sounds like Marlon Brando and acts like Coppola (but looks like Jerry Lewis — a sly reference to his infamous "Holocaust comedy," "The Day the Clown Cried"). It plays out much like “Hearts of Darkness,” the insanely watchable doc on the disastrous making of “Apocalypse Now,” a shoot that lasted for years, partially because Coppola, like his “Animaniacs” stand-in, couldn’t figure out an ending. It even throws in a bit where Brando-Coppola accidentally swallows a bug.
‘Woodstock’ (Episode 59)
Technically it’s a parody of the 1969 Woodstock festival, not the 1970 documentary about it. But our collective knowledge of Woodstock is largely informed by the hit film, which helped turn a much-publicized event into an end-of-the-decade legend. Here, Slappy and Skippy — surly grandma and grandson squirrels, stars of another regular segment — head up to Yasgur’s Farm, wheeze at Joe Cocker and blow up The Who (but only after making a leftfield and inspired "Who's on First?" riff).
‘Raging Bull’/‘Rocky’ (Episode 41)
It was only natural for “Goodfeathers” to take on another Martin Scorsese classic, with one of our heroes making for a much, much nicer Jake LaMotta. Some “Rocky” references were thrown in for good measure, though kids probably got those jokes, not the ones about the tetchy pugilist with issues around his temper and sex drive.
‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (Episode 73)
It’s just a quickie bit, but the opening of this episode mimics, more or less shot-for-shot, the most electrifying opening in cinema history. (Though this comes a close second.)
‘The Maltese Falcon’ (Episode 76)
What kid doesn’t love film noir? Any child who watched classic Looney Tunes saw plenty a Humphrey Bogart reference, but it would likely have been years before they peeped one of his finest films.
‘Gunga Din’ (Episode 80)
A segment about “Gunga Din”! Once a much-seen boys’ adventure, the 1939 classic — starring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and based on the book by Rudyard Kipling — was probably not part of kids’ viewing diet in the Clinton era. Too bad. At least they got an “Animaniacs” parody of it.
‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ (Episode 80)
Probably the least-R-rated of the R-rated films “Animaniacs” sent up. Slappy winds up in a retirement home, which looks an awful lot like the mental ward from thte 1975 Best Picture winner in which Jack Nicholson battles the evil Nurse Ratched.
And, of course, Orson Welles (recurring)
The Brain of “Pinky and the Brain” was mirrored so closely on Orson Welles he was even voiced by Maurice LaMarche, the world’s most renowned Orson impersonator. And like Welles, the Brain was surrounded by idiots who made his life hell. The filmmaker had to battle meddling execs, who would sometimes take away his films and recut them. The Brain sought world domination, but his Bond villain-esque schemes were always thwarted by the dope he questionably made his sidekick.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge