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SHOWS FOR YOUNGSTERS AND THEIR PARENTS TOO : A sense of history and smarts set Fox's 'Animaniacs' apart

December 26, 1993|N.F. MENDOZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While "Mighty Morphin Rangers" may be catching the rapt attention of older kids, the best-kept secret on the Fox Children's Network may be Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs.

This spring, there will be 15 new wild-and-crazy "Animaniacs" shows, in addition to the 50 ordered for fall. That means the Animaniacs' catchy show tunes, familiar settings, manic, off-the-wall stars and sort-of subliminal messages will be coming to kids throughout the TV season.

Retro-style animation and witty story lines revolve around the Warner family--Yakko, Wakko and Dot--and subisdiary characters Rita and Runt, Slappy Squirrel and the Hip Hippos. The back story cooked up as "legend" is that they were actually created in the 1930s by an animator who'd "crossed over the edge." Deemed too zany, the Warners were banished to the studio's water tower until their recent release onto Fox.

"It's the only children's programming right now that is intelligent, honestly," insists Tom Ruegger, the show's senior producer. "Most cartoons today are (characters) chasing each other and hitting each other and making glib comments. Our program deals with ideas that are looked at in humorous ways, dealing with intelligence at major events through history."

This week, the "major event" occurs in war-torn Warsaw, where Rita and Runt visit the Nazi-occupied city to help a little girl escape and reunite with her father. The focus of the episode, called "Puttin' On the Ritz," is near and dear to producer Spielberg, whose current feature film, "Schindler's List," deals with World War II Poland.

Rita and Runt aren't the only ones traveling in historic circles. In the past, the Animaniacs have visited such fictional and real personages as Captain Ahab and Beethoven. They've even found themselves in the Garden of Eden.

The Warners are often pitted against an arrogant authority or historically famous figure who needs his/her bubble burst a bit.

This week, the Warners encounter a rude opera diva whose shrill voice breaks their prized stained glass in "O Silly Mio."

Unlike "Sesame Street," the "Animaniacs" do not make a conscious effort to educate, but manage to throw in an occasional lesson.

"We create an educational interest that's not really about learning, but through a character, like Yakko, showing off in a patter song, sort of in the tradition of Groucho Marx," says Ruegger. "We don't bill the show as education, we don't go to the FCC saying we are that kind of show, but we're not just all candy and sugar. There is some substance."

Released last month, the show's eponymous cassette ($10; CD for $16, Kid Rhino) features the songs "Yakko's World," "Yakko's Universe" and "Wakko's America," among others.

"Steven Spielberg Presents Animaniacs" airs Monday through Friday at 4:30 p.m. on Fox. For ages 2 and up.

More Family Shows

If Merv Griffin and Dick Clark aren't your kidlets' cup of tea, but they're looking for a way to ring in 1994, there's the all-new Sesame Street Stays Up Late! A Monster New Year's Eve Party (Wednesday 7 p.m. KVCR; Thursday 8 p.m. KCET, KOCE; Friday 8:30 p.m. KPBS). Big Bird and his buddies turn on Monster News Network, which looks into holiday festivities of the customs and cultures around the world. The show features footage from Mexico, Portugal, Japan, Israel, German and Norway. Included will be Mexican kids making pinatas and German kids going door-to-door chanting the Rummel Pot song and asking for treats. Lily Tomlin's grating telephone-operator Ernestine also calls in, to connect Oscar the Grouch with his family. For ages 2 to 10.

'Toon in to Day of the Living Toon Heads (Friday 9 p.m. to Saturday noon Cartoon Network), for a big dose of "Toon Heads," the 15-minute specialty programs that introduce cartoons categorically. Among them, an hourlong group of cartoons devoted to insomnia, Chuck Jones or Tex Avery shorts and even a look at black-and-white cartoons. For ages 2 and up.

Animated versions of Roald Dahl's Dirty Beasts (7 a.m.) and Dahl's Revolting Rhymes (7:30 a.m.) begin part of Bravo's new "Night & Day" programming Saturday, which opens with a children's marathon of shows. Opening Shot: Dinosaurs (8 a.m.) is rebroadcast, followed by the animated, feature-length Gulliver's Travels (8:30 a.m.); The Quest for Olwen (10 a.m.); Opening Shot: The Rap Crew and MC Lyte (10:30 a.m.). For ages 2 and up.

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