The Ren & Stimpy Show: Seasons Three and a Half-ish Review
For those of you who haven't heard of The Ren & Stimpy Show and the debacle surrounding its rise and fall, I recommend that you read my review of the previous DVD set.
The Ren & Stimpy Show was snatched away from the hands of its creator, John Kricfalusi, on September 25th 1992, after countless disagreements over content and deadlines with the executives at children's network Nickelodeon, on which the show aired. With Kricfalusi and his studio, Spumco, out of the picture, Nickelodeon set about establishing its own studio, Games Animation, which continued to produce the show until mid-1995, when it was finally cancelled after both its quality and viewing figures had plummeted like an anvil in a Road Runner cartoon. This 3-disc DVD set, a follow-up to last year's release of The Ren & Stimpy Show Uncut: The First and Second Seasons, takes the show up to the end of 1994, and lets us watch, in chronological order, the beginning of the end.
The new episodes produced without the involvement of the show's creator by and large stick to the familiar basic formula: Ren is the smart one, Stimpy is the stupid one, and they get into all sorts of wacky adventures with little to no continuity between episodes. Unfortunately, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that something just isn't right. Although snatches of the old genius (not a term I use loosely, but one that is arguably appropriate here) still shine through on occasions, these episodes are a considerable step down from the standard of those that preceded them, and as the show progresses, the situation becomes worse rather than better.
What is interesting is that the show didn't become bad overnight - something that is often forgotten by loyal Spumco fans making impassioned speeches about the supposed treachery of the artists who flocked to Games. During the second season, there was a gradual decline in quality as the Games content slowly began to overshadow the material that had already been completed by Spumco (because of the abrupt nature of Spumco's removal from the show, several episodes were already in various stages of development, meaning that in some cases the Games content could be little more than the addition of sound effects, whereas in others cases it could include everything except the storyboards), and as the third season begins, there are still a few snatches of Spumco concepts - and thus the old Spumco spirit - kicking around. The drop is obvious, though, both in terms of budget and execution. In the previous season, the art gradually became blander and sloppier as the amount of layout complete at Games outstripped Spumco's contributions, but as soon as the third season begins, with all the art being produced at Games, the change is immediately noticeable.
What is most incredible about this is that, by and large, the new team was comprised of or led by former Spumco acolytes - and none more so than Bob Camp, John K.'s former golden boy, who headed up the new studio as its Supervising Director - which just goes to show the effect your boss can have on your work. John K. may have been a tyrant, but his style resulted in some of the tightest stories and drawings even seen in animation. With him out of the picture, everything just seems lazy, and it becomes more so the further down the line the series goes. The most apparent problem with these episodes is that, for the most part, the artists attempt to match the show's former glory by trying to boil its success down to a formula, inserting characters, catchphrases and its trademark grossness, thinking that these were the elements that made it successful. As John K. points out during one of the audio commentaries, however, none of these things equate to the success of a cartoon: rather, it is a combination of the director, the animators and the atmosphere in which the shows are created. His theory is that a cartoon will tell you more about its director's own personality than that of the characters; if this is true, then these episodes are a pretty damning indictment of Camp.
Many of the flaws of these later shows could have been excused, perhaps, had the Games team concentrated on what mattered the most: the personalities of Ren and Stimpy, and their relationship. Sadly, this is perhaps the most botched aspect of these cartoons. When the duo are not acting completely out of character (in a number of episodes, Stimpy indulges in psychotic tantrums that would have been more appropriate for Ren), they're acting like bland cut-out clichés of their former selves. So many cartoons follow the prototype of Ren = smart and mean, Stimpy = lovable and stupid, but without any depth or variety. At times these episodes remind me of that rotten line of Ren & Stimpy comic books illustrated by Mike Kazaleh, which put Ren and Stimpy in generic and uncharacteristic situations with only the bare minimum of characterization. With their generic situations and flat character portrayals, the episodes begin more and more to resemble a traditional sitcom with some weird and/or disgusting bodily humour thrown in.
Of course, another of the problems with the episodes produced after the Spumco break-up is having to listen to Billy West performing the voice of Ren. A talented actor when given the proper direction, West has made a huge amount of money by being able to mimic voices, but seems to operate in cruise mode when left to his own devices (case in point: his performances as Doug Funnie in the deplorable Doug and Fry in Futurama are almost identical and are among the blandest voices ever heard in animation). Originally, he was slated to voice both Ren and Stimpy, but various circumstances led to John K. doing the voice of Ren. After the break-up, there was some talk of hiring a replacement actor to voice Ren, but eventually Billy West ended up performing both roles, and unfortunately his rendition of Ren is like listening to a cheese grater being scraped across a blackboard. Even his Stimpy voice is weaker here: devoid of John K.'s strict direction, the characterization and performance are all over the place.
It's not all bad, though, and if it's any consolation, the episodes included in this set are, on the whole, a bit better than what was to follow during the fifth season. Indeed, a number of old Spumco concepts were still lying around during the third season, and by and large they tend to result in the strongest episodes, showing that even the sloppiest execution can't quite mask the quality of the ideas. Highlights include Stimpy's Cartoon Show, a two-parter focusing on Stimpy's clumsy attempts to make a cartoon, much to Ren's chagrin, and Lair of the Lummox, a sequel to the first season's Untamed World, and the only episode in this set to have actually been storyboarded back at Spumco. At the other end of the spectrum, though, we have episodes like Ren's Retirement, Hard Times for Haggis and Hermit Ren, which are positively embarrassing and would be skin-crawling if they weren't so completely tedious. The good elements just about make this collection worthwhile, but it's an extremely close call.
All the episodes are presented in their original television 1.33:1 aspect ratio with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio. Much like the last set, the quality is variable but watchable for the most part. The source materials seem a bit weaker than the episodes included in the previous release, with some noticeable analogue tape noise and dot crawl, as well as a fair amount of colour bleed, but nothing majorly distracting. One episode, however, Magical Golden Singing Cheeses, appears to have been sourced from a very low quality analogue source, with a lot of video noise and muffled audio.
It should be pointed out that a number of these episodes have been subjected to time-cuts of varying degrees of severity (a similar problem cropped up on the previous set, despite the fact that it was labelled as "uncut"). Not being as familiar with these episodes as I am with the Spumco cartoons, I am unable to confirm exactly which ones have been cut, but I did notice that the bumper cartoon that was supposed to follow the episode Lair of the Lummox was missing. On this occasion, however, the cuts would appear to be down to bad luck rather than lack of trying. Background colour stylist/director Bill Wray mentioned on an online board that Nickelodeon took no care over the archiving and storage of these shows, and that many episodes were slightly cut when they went into reruns, without the original materials being preserved. This was even true of the first two seasons, where Nickelodeon's master copy of the banned episode Man's Best Friend was destroyed, and the episode only ever saw the light of day because John K. had prepared his own protection master.
The sole extras in this set are a series of 11 commentaries, but if you listened to any of the commentaries on the previous Ren & Stimpy DVD set, you will know that this is no bad thing. Somewhat oddly (although not entirely surprisingly), the commentators are all members of the Spumco crew rather than Games staffers, and as a result they often find themselves speaking about episodes in which they had little or no involvement. Indeed, Eric Bauza, the voice of Stimpy in Adult Party Cartoon even shows up on a number of the tracks, and while he makes some interesting observations from a fan's perspective, he had even less to do with these cartoons than their creator. Personally, I would have enjoyed hearing from a few of members of the Games crew, given that their perspective regarding this whole debacle has never really been heard. (Incidentally, during a recent web chat, John K. mentioned that, on the next set, he would be doing commentaries with Bill Wray and Scott Wills, two former Spumco background painters who moved to Games and were involved in some capacity with most of the episodes produced there.)
Still, when the commentaries are good, they are very good. John K. is in fine vitriolic form, and although he does make an effort to accentuate the positive in these cartoons (which, believe me, is pretty difficult to do), he often falls back on making amusingly snide remarks at the lack of quality on display. ("What would you do differently if you were directing this cartoon?" one of his artists asks him on one track. "I would have made it funny," he quips.) For Stimpy's Cartoon Show, he explains, in great detail, exactly how the Games artists managed to ruin what he had envisioned as an epic about a subject very dear to his heart (the stupidity of the modern-day animation production system), completely missing the point of what he had intended for it to say. He also explains cartoon storytelling on A Yard Too Far, a cartoon which originated as an exercise designed to teach his crew about plot structure. Also, a number of his observations about the problems with many of these cartoons are, in my opinion, right on the money. When John K. is not around (which is the case for five of the tracks), the Games-bashing tends to be more restrained, although writer Richard Pursel does mention, on the commentary for Ren's Pecs (for which he wrote the original story), that when he first saw the completed version of the episode, he was very hurt by the way that his plot had been mangled, destroying Ren and Stimpy's friendship in the process.
There is also an "in-character" commentary on the episode Circus Midgets, with "Ren" (John K.) and "Stimpy" (Eric Bauza) commenting on their "memories" of this particular adventure. I have never been a fan of character commentaries, and this one is no exception. It comes across as stilted, pointless, and very, very lame. Uncomfortable gaps of silence follow virtually every utterance, a great deal of material is repeated, and it is fairly clear that neither speaker prepared what he was going to say beforehand.
In the short space of a few years, Ren & Stimpy went from being the modern-day heir to the Looney Tunes mantle to an embarrassing mess waiting to be put out of its misery. By the third season, its best material was long gone and the decline from then on was pretty steady. Still, fans of the show will want to pick up this set both to witness its long and painful death, and for the extremely informative audio commentaries mentioned above.