This whimpering end to a great cartoon show gives Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky the spaaaace maaadnesssss!
Our reviews of The Ren And Stimpy Show: Seasons Three And A Half-ish (published July 6th, 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.
"Maybe we can find another home that's not rotting?"—Stimpy (Billy West), "Aloha Höek"
I took it as a challenge to see who would crack first. Could my will endure three discs' worth of this stuff? Would I need to prop open my eyes with toothpicks to make it through? Perhaps I could make it. I had, after all, endured the degenerating slide of the previous boxed set. And how much worse could this one get?
And to think, I used to like Ren and Stimpy. Those original John K cartoons still hold up pretty well. I don't care much for the shrill and desperate Adult Cartoon Party work coming out now. (Or has that show been cancelled already?) I don't care at all for the stuff I've seen from Games Animation, who took over the explosive chihuahua and dimwitted cat after Nickelodeon fired Spumco and asserted temporary sovereignty over the scruffy animated critters for a few years. I gave up on the Nickelodeon incarnation of The Ren and Stimpy Show only a few cartoons into the Games era. I stepped back and tried to play fair with the second DVD boxed set, which collected the third and half of the fourth seasons of the show, but as you may recall, I was…disappointed. So it is difficult for me to approach The Ren and Stimpy Show: Season Five and Some More of Four with anything less than creeping unease.
I begin with the first disc of three. "Double Header" has decent background paintings, but the character poses are unenthusiastic and lacking weight. The performances by Billy West are phoned in, especially on Ren. There is no emotional drive to the characters. The plot—Ren and Stimpy are sewn together after a bus accident—does not take advantage of its premise to create any memorable gags. Imagine what Spumco would have done with the idea of Ren and Stimpy as circus freaks. Whatever you imagine is better than what Games actually does with this dumbed-down cartoon. "The Scotsman in Space" recycles gags from the classic "Space Madness," but badly. Then Alan Young (better known as the voice of Scrooge McDuck) shows up as the voice of a Scotsman babbling about sheep. Games tended to recycle voice actors capable of only doing a single voice—Alan Young, Jack Carter—in cartoon after cartoon.
I grit my teeth and keep going. In "Pixie King," Ren and Stimpy are apprentice pixies looking to earn their wings by kissing dewdrops and other stuff that doesn't make much sense. What exactly is the joke here? Then, in "Aloha Höek," the two are stranded on an island and move into an abandoned fish carcass. Dom DeLuise does a Brando impersonation as the "Big Kahuna." At the end of the cartoon, Ren and Stimpy pull off their costumes and reveal themselves to be Soviet spies. Um, uh. Huh? This was the best ending they could come up with?
I tried to be fair. I tried to give the show a chance. But two episodes into this first disc—just four cartoons—and I am on the verge of giving up and just writing this review without watching the rest of the set. I am willing to suffer a lot for the sake of you, the DVD Verdict audience, but my patience has limits. Still, I press on.
It is one hour and six minutes into the first disc that I lose my cool. It is enough that the character drawings are getting less detailed with each cartoon, even in the formerly notorious "fleshy" close-ups. The color palette is losing its shading in favor of flat, often conventional colors. The gag writers are not even trying. But then—wait—is that a hair I see at the top of the screen? Who is monitoring quality control on these discs? I haven't seen a hair in the frame in years. This is Paramount, for heaven's sake! There is another one a few minutes later, right in the middle of a cartoon with Ren and Stimpy as prospectors looking for bleu cheese instead of gold. Was the climax of that cartoon really a parody of "The Cask of Amontillado"? I guess the lit majors in the room got it. Looking for technical flaws (and yes, I know some of the John K cartoons on the first DVD set were not in perfect shape, but they were funny enough for me to overlook the technical problems) was pretty much the only thing that kept me going, at least until I could finish these cartoons and get to the commentary tracks. I never thought I'd hear the end of fart jokes. Oh God, I said "end" and "fart" in the same sentence without even realizing it. Kill me now.
The last two seasons of Ren and Stimpy do have a funny joke here and there. The gay subtext of the show is brought to the fore in "School Mates," as Ren's old frat buddy insists his pal behave more like a "dog" (which involves lots of beer and poker) and reject his fey lifestyle with a cat. In "Terminal Stimpy," we see our favorite hairball spitter confront his mortality following the grief stages of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. After a while, I found myself looking less at the cheap character animation and more at the pretty background paintings. In their original Spumco incarnations, Ren and Stimpy had dimensionality. There was verve and tension in the drawing. There was charisma. But by their ignominious end, Ren and Stimpy have become merely a collection of quirks that are inconsistent from episode to episode.
As with the last DVD set, the saving grace of this package, if anything can save it, is the commentary. The Spumco gang—John Kricfalusi, Eddie Fitzgerald, Richard Pursel, Jim Smith, Vince Waller, Eddie Bauza, and Mike Pataki—show up in various combinations over the course of five cartoons to complain and repeat points you heard on earlier commentaries (the importance of color and good backgrounds, how betrayed they felt by Bob Camp). By the final track, "Terminal Stimpy," John is pretty much just interviewing his old friend Mike "George Liquor" Pataki.
Meanwhile, Bill Wray and Scott Wills are offered the chance to speak for the Games team on three tracks. At times, they try to be kind, but often they are stuck talking about stuff they did not actually work on, calling some of the results "desperate" and "non-expressive." I respect the Spumco guys for extending a hand to these talented artists who got caught in the middle of the mess. In the spirit of forgiveness, John K invites Bill Wray to join him on four cartoons; background artist Scott Wills drops by for one as well. Wray admits he "wasn't an innovator," but rather just a guy trying to get the job done, and even he is embarrassed by some of the work done by his Games compatriots. Wills talks mostly about color theory. In the midst of all this Spumco vs. Games tension, Wray's conciliatory tone should remind us that for most artists, art is a career, not a holy calling. John K is an iconoclast, a perfectionist. Bill Wray, Scott Wills, and many others are just trying to pay the bills.
One additional commentary track repeats the "Ren and Stimpy watch Ren and Stimpy" shtick from the second set, with John K as Ren and Eric Bauza as Stimpy. This time, they watch "Big Flakes" (the duo are snowed in, run out of food, and get cabin fever), but since they have never seen it before—and John K is struggling not to rail against the shoddy treatment of his characters—Bauza pretty much carries the show.
The final stage of grief, according to Kubler-Ross, is acceptance. We have seen the denial, as Spumco soldiers on in the belief that the cancelled Adult Cartoon Party will somehow save Ren and Stimpy. We have seen the anger in John K's bitter attacks on Bob Camp and the cartoon industry in general. We have seen bargaining, as Paramount tries to convince audiences that these boxed sets of Games episodes are worth buying just to hear the old master hold court. We have seen depression: my face after watching these cartoons.
Now it is just time to put Ren and Stimpy to bed and accept that they will never come back from The Big Sleep.
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