When even the commentary trashes this collection, you can't blame Judge Mike Pinsky for saying it's one for the litter box.
Our reviews of The Ren And Stimpy Show: Season Five And Some More Of Four (published October 12th, 2005), The Ren And Stimpy Show: The First And Second Seasons (published December 1st, 2004), and Ren And Stimpy: The Lost Episodes (published July 18th, 2006) are also available.
"I'm not stupid. I've seen cartoons like this before."—Ren Höek (John Kricfalusi)
The story has become a cautionary tale for any idealistic young cartoonist working in Hollywood today. John Kricfalusi became a cult figure overnight with Ren and Stimpy, which fans touted as the first creator-driven cartoon show since the golden age of Looney Toons. Television critics and parents decried the show for its scatological humor (have there ever been so many jokes about litter boxes in one place?), but animators saw John K as their messiah.
And then it fell apart. The reasons are legion: John K's inability to coddle network executives who held the purse strings; his tardiness in completing episodes. But mostly, it was Nickelodeon, a network whose business-schooled managers thought they could micromanage Ren and Stimpy into a merchandising juggernaut, if only they got its pesky artists to shut up and obey orders. So they fired John K and offered his team their own studio. Some stayed loyal; some left.
And Ren and Stimpy quickly slid downhill to become the dirty litter box its critics always claimed it had been all along.
I popped the first disc of Ren and Stimpy: Seasons Three and a Half-ish into my player with some trepidation. I was one of those Spumco fans who dropped the show when Nickelodeon took over. I cursed the names of Bob Camp and Games Animation, the company formed from the droppings of the departed Spumco. I tuned in for one or two episodes, but found them so unfunny that I moved on to other things. Other fans did, too: Ren and Stimpy coasted on its reputation from the first two seasons for three more years before network executives finally put it down.
Right off the bat, I knew my fears were warranted. The first post-Spumco episode, "To Salve or Not to Salve," recycles animation from the classic "Stimpy's Invention." There is no story structure, just leftover gags. The big laugh: a salve salesman repeats the word salve over and over. Salve. Salve. Salve. Laughing yet?
Many of the episodes of the third season are not offensively bad, as you might have feared. They are just missing the originality and comic timing of John K's work. The Spumco aesthetic leaned toward tough cartoons to counter the compromised work that evolved from years of Hanna Barbara's dominance on television. John K's cartoons were intended as satire on the propriety of children's cartoons. But Nickelodeon was—and still is—primarily a children's network (or in the case of its nighttime programming, an attempt to recapture the innocence of its adult viewers' childhoods). So Nickelodeon understandably felt threatened by what Ren and Stimpy tried to do for its first two seasons. Games Animation gave the network what it wanted: a show that pretended to be subversive, but was really as rebellious as a fart among seventh graders.
Take a cartoon like "Ren's Pecs," for example. Ren gets plastic surgery thanks to a transplant from Stimpy's rear. You might see this initially as an inverted metaphor for the transformation of John K's muscular cartoons to Bob Camp's flabby version, but I will leave that to your imagination. Suffice it to say that if Spumco had made "Ren's Pecs" (and the cartoon was initiated by John K's team, then yanked away to Games for completion), the satire might have been sharper and certainly the homoerotic aspects of Ren's physical transformation would have been played for wicked humor. The companion cartoon in this episode, "An Abe Divided," provides an opportunity for some political jabs, like the classic "Powdered Toast Man" short. Instead, writer Jim Gomez goes the milder route, building some weak gags out of Stimpy thinking the Lincoln Memorial's lap is Santa Claus and Ren climbing inside the head in search of treasure (I wonder if Jerry Bruckheimer saw this before greenlighting National Treasure). It is not subversive or offensive; it is just there. I suspect, given the motives of Nickelodeon's brass, that is the plan.
John K's "created by" credit disappears quickly from the opening titles in this third season. But I suspect he would be embarrassed to get credit for cartoons like "Circus Midgets," in which a sadistic clown named Schlomo (modeled after Joe Pesci in Goodfellas) beats up on our passive heroes. Or the random appearances by characters like Kowalski, the sweaty man-child of "Fake Dad," usually playing nothing more than an unsympathetic brute. Ren's legendary rants are almost nonexistent—probably a result of Billy West's softer performance style—leaving Ren more of a crybaby. Ren and Stimpy's relationship is stripped of its complexity, which makes their interaction bland. This puts all the weight on the individual gags to carry the humor.
Throughout his bitter commentary tracks on the three discs that comprise this DVD collection of Season Three and parts of Season Four, Kricfalusi and members of the original Spumco team rail against the creative bankruptcy of the Games cartoons and retell stories of their difficulties with Nickelodeon. Note that Bob Camp and his crew are nowhere to be seen on these discs. Was the team at Games offered the chance to defend itself? John K and the new voice of Stimpy, Eric Bauza, try to ad-lib over "Circus Midgets" to little effect. (John K's work here on Ren is so off that I thought at first it was Billy West, until an alert reader set me straight.)
Even without John K's complaints, it is evident to the average viewer that the quality of the Games cartoons continues to drop throughout the third and fourth seasons. As Bob Camp runs out of ideas left over from the Spumco days, his writers become increasingly desperate to fill time. Many people credit the success of "gross-out" shows like Ren and Stimpy, and its successors like SpongeBob SquarePants, on their bizarre non-sequiturs. But those seemingly random gags only work effectively when anchored to strong characters and tight story structures. For example, Ren's rant in the classic "Space Madness" is funny because it comes at the moment of Ren's complete psychological breakdown. We both empathize with and fear Ren, and that tension is articulated in the form of Ren's disconnect from reason. We understand Ren's madness, but we are stretched almost to the limit of our comprehension by his actual language, full of half-familiar signifiers ("Oh, my beloved ice cream bar!"). If Ren were just some unfamiliar character thrown up on screen, the rant would only be so much noise.
Compare this to a third-season cartoon, "Ren's Retirement." This might have been a clever satire on our fear of aging, as Ren complains about his degrading body. Each gag is obvious: he complains about ear hair and we see it growing quickly; he complains about sagging skin and his skin sags. But the focus is shifted away from Ren, as Stimpy overeats Ren's birthday cake—then turns and vomits. Why? Because preteens find barfing funny?
More often than not, Ren and Stimpy are now passive victims in the Games cartoons, rarely initiating their own adventures. Even when a potentially clever idea emerges (for example, Stimpy has a psychedelic journey inside his own navel), weak execution and flaccid storytelling drags down the funny.
By the fourth season, about half of which is included in this package, the episodes are so poorly written and cheaply animated that they defy rational comment. The flat colors on these cartoons made me think at first that I was watching a poor DVD transfer. A few cartoons do seem a little blurry, as if reconstructed from secondary sources. But I wonder if this is just a product of the slackening standards that kept the show on time and under budget at the behest of Bob Camp's Nickelodeon masters.
And the sad thing is, as John K himself notes, "I've heard people who work at Games; they said every day, that was the one question in everybody's mind is, what would John do?" Judging from the shoddy and derivative cartoons here, they either did not understand how to answer that question, or ignored the evidence of two years of hard work that preceded their take on the series. Fans of the series should remember the first two seasons of Ren and Stimpy fondly—and pretend the last three seasons do not exist. You will sleep better at night.
Ren and Stimpy: Seasons Three and a Half-ish should only be glanced at by completists who must own everything associated with John Kricfalusi. If you are an unapologetic Ren and Stimpy fan, you will likely find yourself disgusted by the end of this set. The downward slide in quality, combined with the Spumco crew's savage comments, will turn you against your favorite cartoon within hours. Once upon a time, Ren and Stimpy broke new ground in television animation. For all its flaws, the previous boxed set (with Seasons 1 and 2) is still recommended—and those cartoons are still funny. But the quality moments are too few on this second boxed set to be worth your money, even if only just to hear John K hold court.
This court orders these pale imitations of Ren and Stimpy—as well as Games Animation and the Nickelodeon executives who butchered the show—to be taken to the pound and put to sleep.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Tracks with John Kricfalusi and Friends
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