The recent decision by Warner Bros. Discovery to purge HBO Max of both dozens of beloved animated series and a number of ones in development was a sting. Regardless of whether it made sense financially (and the jury’s certainly out on that), it was unequivocally a disappointment in comparison to the treatment Warner Bros. has historically given to animated series. There was an era when the company was producing a stellar lineup of televised cartoons good enough to match any other in history.
Thirty years after the debut of Batman: The Animated Series, perhaps the most consistently lauded American animated series of all time, let’s look back at the Warner Bros. animation renaissance that occurred in the early ’90s. Bolstered in confidence and resources after a few uneven decades, the studio quickly turned things around with a string of hits like…
Tiny Toon Adventures
When it comes to animation in America, the company to beat has always been Disney. However, not even Disney was safe during the ’60s and ’70s, the same years Warner Bros. saw their Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck fall off the payroll. But by the late ’80s/early ’90s, the Disney revival had begun in earnest, with films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast and the Disney Afternoon block with DuckTales and TaleSpin granting Disney its powerhouse status once again. This was what Warner Bros. aimed to compete with… and it had Steven Spielberg’s help.
Joining with Spielberg’s Amblin Television division gave Warner Bros. extra resources and clout. Spielberg, along with tireless producers and executives like Tom Ruegger and Jean MacCurdy, worked to reinvent the Looney Tunes brand with Tiny Toon Adventures. New characters were introduced, though they were obviously ones based on previous icons. As such, we were treated to Acme Looniversity students like Buster and Babs Bunny, Plucky Duck, and others. The idea of afternoon cartoons as a cheap way to sell toys is immediately brushed aside upon first glance here: The animation is vibrant, the writing is funny and energetic, and it all sounds wonderful, as Spielberg successfully requested the use of a full orchestra to score the cartoon.
Tiny Toon Adventures is available to watch on Hulu.
Frequently forgotten among this time period despite its four-year run, Taz-Mania isn’t a revision like Tiny Toon Adventures but rather a starring role for Taz, the whirlwind of slobbery energy that first appeared back in 1954. Not all of it works, and the cast of characters invented for the show, like Bushwhacker Bob and Digeri Dingo, have mostly been lost to the sands of cartoon time. However, it’s important because it was the first in this new line of cartoons to appear on Fox Kids, a programming block that in the early ’90s was created specifically to duel with The Disney Afternoon and would be the home of many Warner Bros. series going forward.
Taz-Mania is available to watch on Boomerang through Prime Video, or for digital purchase on Amazon and Google Play.
Batman: The Animated Series
No series, animated or otherwise, has encapsulated why a specific superhero works like Batman: The Animated Series. Lavishly animated, beautifully scored (the late Shirley Walker is one of the most underrated composers of all time), and written with a “mini movie” style that allowed each episode to play with heavy themes and gripping pathos, Batman: The Animated Series is the bar that every incarnation of the Dark Knight since has been challenged to clear. Though it came in the wake of the game-changing success of the 1989 Batman film, it is far more than a simple cash-in or lazy riff on Tim Burton’s mega-hit.
Created by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, it was the first superhero cartoon in 50 years that delivered its title character and their world with the majesty they deserved. Emmy Award wins and a pair of films followed, with the first, Mask of the Phantasm, often being recognized as the greatest Batman movie ever. Since 1992, Batman: The Animated Series’ spot in the pantheon of comic book adaptations has remained unchallenged and along with X-Men, produced simultaneously by Marvel Entertainment and Saban and also debuting that fall on Fox Kids, it would usher in a new age for on-screen capes and cowls.
Batman: The Animated Series is available to watch on HBO Max.
Warner Bros.’ second cartoon collaboration with Spielberg would result in Animaniacs. This series, created by Ruegger, would feature nonstop comedy paced with rapid-fire sitcom delivery while unleashing a deluge of winking innuendo and fourth-wall breaks. The trio of leading characters, Yakko, Wakko, and Dot, were introduced as characters heralding from the 1930s origins of Warner Bros. Animation, ones that had recently escaped from the water tower on the Warner Bros. lot and were now free to unleash their wildness upon the world. Numerous musical segments and a sketch show format give it an air of unpredictability often missing from cartoons built on gags, and the original series remains refreshing to this day.
One of its most popular segments would also serve as the launch pad for a successful spinoff show: Pinky and The Brain. Midway through its run, it would move over to Kids’ WB, Warner Bros.’ new Saturday morning/weekday afternoon block. Begun in the fall of 1995, Kids’ WB became the primary residence for these cartoons, with the exodus finishing by 1997 as Batman: The Animated Series was finally done with its five-year contract with Fox. For Animaniacs, a series that was so self-referential in nature, it was truly a homecoming (and a chance to use that water tower branding for all it was worth.)
Animaniacs is available to watch on Hulu.
Pinky and the Brain
Not all of the first shows on Kids’ WB are as good as Animaniacs (The Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries is like Taz-Mania: fun, but fairly underwhelming.) However, one show that at times could even eclipse its progenitor is Pinky and the Brain. The story of “two laboratory mice, their genes have been spliced” doubles down on Animaniacs’ vibe and is often so specific in its jokes that we should never again question the ability of interested kids to keep up with their favorite cartoons again. Want extended parodies of ’50s actor Raymond Burr, 1996 Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, or Three’s Company star Joyce DeWitt? If so, Pinky and the Brain is a treasure.
Its follow-up, Pinky, Elmyra & the Brain? Not so much. Only lasting one season, the promotion of the bratty Elmyra from Tiny Toon Adventures side character to a co-lead here wasn’t a fruitful move and reportedly earned the ire of its creators. The series would also mark the end of Spielberg and Amblin Television’s involvement with Warner Bros. animation for 20 years.
Pinky and the Brain is available to watch on Hulu.
Kids’ WB would soon fill up with superheroes, with Superman: The Animated Series coming in 1996 and The New Batman Adventures, a sequel series to Batman: The Animated Series, airing in 1997. However, the first (and the only one to be executive produced by Spielberg) was Freakazoid! Continuing the madcap antics found in Animaniacs, Freakazoid! wouldn’t last very long (at only two seasons and 24 episodes, it’s the shortest series on this list), but it’s a cult classic thanks to its constant zaniness and self-aware parody. The titular character’s greatest villain? The Lobe, voiced by the late David Warner, who could be found around the same time putting on a straighter face as Batman: The Animated Series’ Ra’s al Ghul.
Freakazoid! is available to stream for free with ads on Tubi, or for digital purchase on Amazon, Apple, and Google Play.
Superman: The Animated Series
After redefining Batman, taking a stab at Superman seemed like the obvious choice for Bruce Timm and co. It wouldn’t be as simple as slapping the BTAS template over the Man of Steel, though — developing Superman: The Animated Series gave the crew a chance to define what would become the look for their superhero efforts going forward, with cleaner and more angular drawing, simpler designs, and faster editing. So when WB requested more Batman, The New Batman Adventures overhauled the Caped Crusader in this fashion and the aesthetic would be retained for future shows like Batman Beyond, Justice League, and others.
STAS isn’t quite the revelation for the character that BTAS is, but it does grasp what makes Superman tick. Intelligent, strong-willed, and lacking the infinite reservoir of power that the character is often criticized for, this Superman retains a sense of humanity that is easy to lose when you can bench press a city block. And while BTAS had mostly been reserved for characters that could easily acclimate to its noirish themes, Superman’s stories are full of sci-fi/fantasy, with the stakes only getting higher as the world-conquering Darkseid enters the picture.
It’s with Superman that this new golden age of Warner Bros. animation on television concluded. There would be strong offerings to come (Histeria! is styled like a more blatantly educational Animaniacs but it’s worth a watch, and the aforementioned Batman Beyond has an absolutely perfect first season and ended the ’90s with a bang), but the amount of series that would have an impact like the ones on this list would become more spaced apart. Like the Warner Bros. water tower, the era looms as a rare example of animation creators being given the consistent resources and support they need from a company to, well, create.
Superman: The Animated Series is available to stream on HBO Max.