Judge Bill Gibron is sick and twisted, and if you tell him that, he'll take it as a compliment.
A less than stellar showing for this groundbreaking showcase.
Animation is a medium of infinite possibilities. Whatever can be imagined can be crafted in the pen and ink parameters of this realm of pure imagination. Whether it's with lines and color, stop motion mechanics, or the once novel notion of CGI, nothing feeds the inner child better than really well-done dreams come to life. However, many forget that the cartoon's origins come from a far more mature ideal. Originally, animated shorts preceded the main feature at movie houses around the country at a time when adults, not "desperately in need of a babysitting" rug rats, were frequenting the box office. The comedy may have seemed kid-friendly, but there was a subversive quality that elevated the anarchy to decidedly non-adolescent levels.
Well, thanks to television and those Saturday morning merchandising marathons called programming, the cartoon is now pure pre-pubescent pabulum, no doubt about it. Plastered in between ads for super sugary cereals and unnecessary rolled fruits, are action figures in freefall, all attempting to get those underdeveloped consumers in the proper spending spirit with the primary color crap. Not surprisingly, ever since getting lost among the juvenilia, there have been individuals aiming to recapture cell art for a more grown-up psyche. Though they initially started out promoting rock bands and providing concert content, Spike and Mike (AKA Craig "Spike" Decker and Mike Gribble) conceived Mellow Manor Productions with an equal eye toward reviving the art of the animated short. Early champions of such memorable madness as "Bambi Meets Godzilla," the popularity of the cartoons overpowered their musical aspirations, and it wasn't long before S&M were sponsoring animation full time.
Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation has now lasted over 15 years (and survived the death of founding member Gribble in 1994). Over the years, everyone from Mike Judge (Beavis and Butthead) to Trey Parker and Matt Stone ("Spirit of Christmas") got a beneficial boost as part of this touring treasure trove of outrageousness. Even the Powerpuff Girls got their start as part of this cross-country carnival. Now, thanks to Shout! Factory, we get glimpses of the Spike and Mike mania as Caught in the Act presents just under an hour of freakish film frenzy from the past few years (most of the shorts date from 2002 or later). In addition to a standard Spike and Mike wraparound (an intro dealing with movie theater snack foods), there are 18 full-fledged films here. Some run several minutes; others last less than a couple of seconds. Individually, we witness the following:
• "Refrigerator Art"
• "Quack Off"
• "Hippie Juice"
• "The Legend of Raggot"
• "Grimm's Humpty Dumpty"
• "Beat the Brat"
• "Rip Wack"
• "Stinky Monkey"
• "Proper Urinal Etiquette"
• "Schindler's Fist"
• "Love that Pussy"
• "Le Tésor Du Téard Salé" (The Treasure
of the Salted Tadpole)
• "Happy Tree Friends: Milkin' It"
• "Boris the Dog"
• "My First Boner"
• "Here Comes Dr. Tran"
While it's true that our purveyors of the peculiar like to push the envelope, Caught in the Act isn't really all that cheeky. Now, before there was a dot-com boom, Spike and Mike were it. If you wanted to see animation that was off—meaning "the beaten path," "color," or "the wall"—you had no other outlet than this duo's devious traveling roadshow. Kind of like a Jim Rose of the cartoon cult, they'd traverse the globe letting people into the strange, surreal world of their crazy creators. But since Shockwave and Atom Films and other web-based content providers gave avenue to individuals to express their inner insanity on desktops across the planet, Spike and Mike don't seem so sensational. As a matter of fact, several of the bits here can't hold a corncob to the terrifically tasteless bedlam of such lost gems as the rejected Parker/Stone project called "Princess." (Do a Google—this X-rated wonder is well worth seeing.) So Caught in the Act has some mighty big shadows to crawl out from under, and it rarely does.
There is only one fantastic cartoon here, the absolutely hilarious "Here Comes Dr. Tran." It is so good, in fact, that it is the only short that gets any bonus treatment at all (as part of the DVD, there is a brief "making-of" documentary on the film's creation). Though the premise makes it sound kinda clichéd, director Breehn Burns's desire to take the main idea to ridiculous, even raunchy levels is just magnificent. It almost makes trudging through the other 17 shorts worth the effort…almost. Honestly, there are a couple of additional high points along with way. Fans of the Happy Tree Friends will enjoy the gory gruesomeness at the hands of these weird woodland creatures (though its nothing Ren and Stimpy and Itchy and Scratchy hadn't perfected over a decade ago) and "Grimm's Humpty Dumpty" is an outlandish, borderline racist revamp of Mother Goose's unprocessed omelet that still manages a few fun moments. But for the most part, the shorts here are one-note/joke presentations, overstaying their welcome or failing to realize that their comic conceit wasn't that great in the first place. While you can't deny the artistry, you can malign the manner in which it is used.
Some of the installments are just plain stupid. What "Rip Wack" is trying to achieve with its "Money for Nothing" level CGI is a creative quandary, while "Stinky Monkey" commits the mortal merriment sin of making the surefire silliness of simian situations just plain dull. It makes one start to wonder about the mentality of those creating this crud. Of course, what we learn is that the vast majority of the Spike and Mike mavens are obsessed with sophomoric and burlesque sexual content. Having an old lady stroke a cat and proclaim her love of pussy may seem funny—and it is, for about a second. But "Love That Pussy" goes on for four additional minutes, beating the gag so far into the ground that civilizations of moles are angered over this subterranean invasion. "My First Boner" would have been better had (a) the song been given a more classic Schoolhouse Rock and less lame Lilith Fair vibe and (b) the premise moved beyond the "look I've got wood" dynamic. Indeed, "Rez-Erection," "The Legend of Raggot," and "Pornoless" all suffer from a prurient pandering that doesn't complement their cartooning or their originality. All three are wonderfully realized ("Rez" like an old horror film, "Raggot" like an over-the-top caricature, etc.) but none are amusing for very long.
As portfolio fodder, as a showcase for their talent and temerity, everyone involved in Caught in the Act deserves praise, and another chance at animation stardom. None of the cartoons here are complete losers ("Schindler's Fist" may be the sole exception) and each one is creative in terms of their visual aesthetic. It's the script and the situations that doom their designs, taking the cheap and tawdry way out when something more intelligent and satiric would have worked wonderfully. "Boris the Dog" starts out stellar, but once we get involved in the next door neighbor's celestial fantasies, the narrative runs off course. The same applies to "Hippie Juice." The political humor has us in stitches, but once we move over into bloodbath territory, the point is lost.
Part of the problem for these filmmakers is not knowing when to quit. "Proper Urinal Etiquette" is a perfect example of too much carried on for far too long. Others, like "Beat on the Brat" or "Refrigerator Art," are too short to really resonate. By the time we're in sync with its sentiments, we're off to something else. Usually, 18 separate shorts would yield a higher return than 15% fun, but Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation: Caught in the Act barely manages a meaningful DVD diversion.
At least Shout! Factory shows up on the tech end to give us a fantastic transfer and decent aural attributes. The 1.33:1 full screen image is clean, clear, and limited only by the source material used. Some of the artists provide pristine copies of their films. Other material looks like it's been put through the screening room mill. Still, they all have a nice amount of contrast to highlight the delicious details, and the colors are also complete and correct. Though there's not much to amplify, the Dolby Digital Stereo mix is professional and pleasant. As stated before, "Here Comes Dr. Tran" gets a 13 minute making-of, and Shout! Factory hawks a few of their products, but that's it for the extra content (the "Tran" featurette is fabulous though, as good as the short itself).
Something as ingrained in the pop culture cosmos as Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation doesn't get that way from being dull, derivative, and dumb. Indeed, a lot of popular favorites have this energetic duo to thank for bringing them directly into the mainstream. But it's hard to envision any mass acceptance of the work on Caught in the Act. Indeed, much of this material feels recycled instead of innovative. And that's hardly the way to break down the boundaries of acceptable animation.
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