Note: Because much of what I said in my review of Time Life's earlier Ren & Stimpy DVD release also pertains to this version, much of its main text has been reproduced here.
For those who have never heard of The Ren & Stimpy Show, it can be summed up as a cartoon show featuring an irritable, psychotic Chihuahua named Ren Höek, and his best friend (and lover), the mentally retarded and extremely effeminate Stimpson J. Cat. Together, Ren and Stimpy get up to all sorts of wacky antics, from going into space to acting as door-to-door rubber nipples salesmen. Although it aired on a children's network, its main audience was college and university students, who quickly tapped into its subversive nature and excellent characterisation. Despite all this, most people still dismiss it as silly and disgusting, viewing only the surface and ignoring its deeper elements. Its creator is one John Kricfalusi (popularly known as John K), a Canadian animator who became incredibly fed up with the stagnant state of the animation industry, which in the 1950s had been taken over by bureaucrats and sitcom writers. Having formed his own animation studio, Spumco, he designed Ren & Stimpy from the outset as a show that would break all the taboos that had been enforced on the industry. John K's goal was simple: to make cartoons funny again. Rather than writing scripts, he returned to the technique used on almost all animation until the 1960s (and still used by Pixar, Spumco and some Cartoon Network shows today): developing the stories on storyboards, eliminating the scriptwriting process altogether. This was radical at the time, as such a practice had not been used for nearly 30 years (studio executives, according to those in the know, can't understand storyboards and don't like the amount of freedom it gives the cartoonists). It is this, more than anything, that gives Ren & Stimpy its sheer energy and fusion, and is the reason why almost all scripted animation is lifeless and sterile, with little or no cohesion between the writing, artwork and voice acting.
Ren & Stimpy has a fascinating history however you look at it. It was turned down by ABC, NBC and Fox, and finally bought by children's network Nickelodeon. For around two years it made a name for itself as one of the most subversive, original and intelligent shows of all time, before the creators were fired for being too daring. After that, its popularity sank like the Titanic and the show was abruptly cancelled. Yet even today the original two seasons have a voracious cult following, and it is one of the most asked-for titles for DVD release. Last year, the show enjoyed something of a revival, once more in the hands of its creator, in the form of the unabashedly risqué Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon on TNN/Spike TV, but with over two hours' worth of material remaining indefinitely on the shelf and the studio not contracted for a second season, it would appear that this renaissance was short-lived.
When the show debuted on Nickelodeon in 1991, it broke every single rule that had been established for television animation over the past 30 years. As a show that used what is known as "limited animation" (the practice of holding static drawings with only small amounts of animation in order to save money), John K tore down the unwritten rule that the drawings could not go to extremes for fear of looking odd. Whereas most people view limited animation as a restriction, Ren & Stimpy took great delight in the concept of static imagery, and the artists ran riot, creating some of the most grotesque and imaginative drawings to date. The show makes no attempt to conform to the rules of reality: there is practically no consistency between episodes, the rules of gravity do not always apply, characters change size and position mid-scene... In short, it does everything a cartoon should.
Ultimately, though, all John K's risk-taking came at a price. During the second season, Nickelodeon became increasingly more agitated with the extreme nature of the subject matter, and also the continual production delays (delays which they themselves contributed to, with their continual demands for risqué material to be altered), and fired John K from his own show. Most of the artists working at his studio, Spumco, refused to work for Nickelodeon after that, which led to the network removing production duties from Spumco and setting up its own studio, Games Animation. Although a few people from Spumco continued to work on the show at the new studio, the quality of the episodes declined dramatically, and as viewing figures plummeted, taking Ren & Stimpy from one of the most watched to one of the least watched TV shows, Nickelodeon pulled the plug in 1995.
Perhaps Ren & Stimpy's greatest asset is also its greatest downfall. Each episode is completely unique, and the art style, story structure and timing patterns vary depending on who was involved in each episode. Each director brought a great deal of their own personal style to the mix, with variable results. Generally, the episodes directed by John K are the best of the bunch, as they show the tightest characterisation and some of the craziest ideas. At the other end of the spectrum are Bob Camp's episodes. They show a distinct lack of timing and a tendency to go for very generic situations. That said, they do contain some of the wildest and most inspired artwork. (Historical note: after Spumco was fired, Bob Camp took over as show runner.) The episodes directed by Vincent Waller are some of the most laugh-out-loud funny episodes, with extremely wacky twists on familiar situations and settings, although his episodes are not the outright classics that John K shows like Stimpy's Invention are. It is, however, a credit to Waller's abilities that the first episode he directed, Rubber Nipple Salesmen, remains a cult favourite and one of the most popular of all time. This extreme amount of variation means that, among all the risk-taking, there are some episodes which don't work so well. The first season has quite a few episodes which, though fun, were clearly intended to be filler material that could to produced quickly to allow the team more time to work on the more ambitious projects. This is less of a problem during the second season, where more than one director was working on the show and the duties could be divided up. (John K directed every episode of the first season himself, except for Black Hole which he and Camp co-directed, both uncredited.)
The importance of Ren & Stimpy, both in terms of animation and in terms of culture, cannot be overstated. The amount of variety there is in television animation today is often taken for granted; yet, had it not been for Ren & Stimpy, animation on TV would still be limited to swill like The Smurfs and He-Man. In short, Ren & Stimpy made it acceptable for cartoons to be cartoony. The show has spawned a whole slew of imitators, many of which are very good, although most have the habit of taking only the gross and bizarre elements and ignoring all the subtext. This is unsurprising, since most viewers only seem to view Ren & Stimpy as a sick and wacky cartoon, without realising what goes on beneath the surface. It is, for example, no secret that Ren and Stimpy are a gay couple in a sadomasochistic relationship (Ren beats Stimpy, and Stimpy enjoys it), although it is amazing to discover just how many people fail to notice this element of the show. With these subtleties frequently lost on the average viewer, it is a testament to the quality of the show that it can be enjoyed by people of all walks of life: the Rens as well as the Stimpys, so to speak.
The show made its first appearance on DVD last year on a 3-disc set from Time Life, a company better known for selling screen adaptations of The Bible via cable television. This set included the first one and a half seasons of the show, with no bonus features and a number of the episodes suffering from censorship. The set disappeared from view relatively quickly, which was perhaps for the best, given that those who managed to get hold of a copy were understandably annoyed by the lack of care put into its production. Therefore, news that Paramount Home Video was working on bringing the entire first two seasons to DVD, uncut and with plenty of bonus materials, provided ample cause for much jubilation. (Generally, the first two seasons are the only ones that the fans care about, since the final three were produced without the involvement of John K and, while they have their moments, generally because a handful of episodes were produced from old Spumco stories, are more or less regarded as a waste of time.)
Certainly, there is much to appreciate about this set. Not only is every episode from the first two seasons included, material that was previously censored has now been restored to a number of shows. Now, viewers can marvel at the wonderful posing and intricate animation as Ren passionately kisses Stimpy in Big House Blues, before realizing what he is doing and rushing to wash his mouth out by gulping down stale toilet water (despite Nickelodeon's objections to this sequence, elements of it have remained in the title sequence that precedes every single Ren & Stimpy show). They can gasp with sheer horror as Stimpy performs off-screen fellatio on Ren's cousin Sven in Sven Höek, and later in the same cartoon when Ren threatens to gouge out the eyes of the hapless pair (this particular piece of footage is transferred from a time-coded VHS tape, presumably because Nickelodeon destroyed the original copy of the offending scene). They can also experience the splendour that is the long-banned episode (and the main reason that many cite for John K's firing), Man's Best Friend, as well as over two hours' worth of episodes that were missing from the Time Life set, including the much-loved classics Stimpy's First Fart, Stimpy's Fan Club, The Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen and Big Baby Scam. It's all good...
...or is it? It seems that somewhere along the line, somebody screwed up. When Adult Party Cartoon was airing on Spike TV last year, the network also bought the rights to air the entire back catalogue of the original show. Plagued by numerous and lengthy commercial breaks, the only way that the original shows could fit into the schedule was by removing material. For the first season, this was simplified somewhat by the number of bumpers and fake commercials that accompanied each episode, facilitating the removal of content that did not interfere with the episodes themselves. During the second season, however, the episodes were generally longer and the bumpers fewer in number. As a result, Spike ended up removing whole sequences from the shows, and a number of these cuts have made it on to the DVD. These include the removal of a number of gags from Ren's Toothache (included uncut on the Time Life set, as if to add insult to injury), Big Baby Scam, The Cat That Laid the Golden Hairball and Stimpy's First Fart. While these cuts may seem like small fry when compared to the indignities inflicted upon the show by Nickelodeon back in the early 90s, a number of excellent gags have been excised, and the result is that this set is not the be-all and end-all that was promised. Even owners of both this and the Time Life set will not end up with a complete collection, since many of the episodes that have been shortened here were not even included on the earlier set. Worse still, this makes Paramount guilty of false advertising, given their heavy promotion of the set as "Uncut".
Furthermore, two cartoons would appear to have been cut by John K because the end results, completed after he was fired from the show, were not what he originally envisioned. These are the entire "Bloody Head Fairy" scene in Haunted House and the Grandpa character whistling in Big Baby Scam. In the case of Haunted House, the Blood Head Fairy was originally intended to be George Liquor in drag, but when the incomplete episode ended up at Games Animation, George Liquor was replaced with a caricature of the character of Doug Funnie from the Nicktoon Doug (a truly repugnant show that the Spumco crew lay into with great gusto during one of the audio commentaries on this set). In Big Baby Scam, the Grandpa character was originally meant to whistle a cheerful little ditty to our favourite dog and cat duo, but when Games completed the sound mix, they replaced it with a few bars from The Hall of the Mountain King which, given that it was the same tune whistled by Peter Lorre's character (a child murderer) in the movie M, took on a much darker connotation. At the end of the day, the show is John K's creation and how it is presented should ultimately be his decision, I do think that cutting this material was a mistake. The timing in the Big Baby Scam's case is now ruined by the fact that the scene abruptly fades out without a proper "punch line", and in the case of Haunted House, the Bloody Head Fairy sequence was, in my opinion, however botched, the highlight of a fairly average episode. It's a travesty that John K was booted from the show in the first place and thus not allowed to complete the scenes in the way that he wanted, but what's done is done, and I don't believe that trying to excise these scenes really achieves anything.
[Edit, 6th July 2005: John K has commented on this review at the Motlos board and says that the information in the above paragraph is incorrect, and that he did not cut anything from these shows. We can therefore assume that they were mangled by either Nickelodeon or SpikeTV.]
Note that Man's Best Friend appears on Disc 2, accessible from the Extras menu, despite being listed on the packaging as being included on Disc 3. The ordering of the second season episodes is also a little strange and certainly bears little resemblance to the order in which they originally aired. The production order is hard to gauge, since multiple episodes were always in production at any one time, but this is certainly not the correct order, since some episodes completed at Spumco appear on this set chronologically after ones completed at Games. Nonetheless, rest assured that every single episode of the first two seasons are included here (indeed, Big House Blues is included twice, in both its cut and uncut forms) - it's just that some have been shortened.
A lot of great material is indeed included on these three discs, and it is a shame to complain about the release after the great efforts John K and the Spumco crew went to in order to restore material previously deleted by Nickelodeon. However, this is a very clear case of one hand not knowing what the other was up to, with the set marketed as something that it is not. John K is apparently as surprised and shocked as the show's fans by these cuts (see his response), but he rightfully points out that a considerable amount of excellent footage is present, much of it unseen by all but the most ardent Ren & Stimpy fans. In an ideal world, Paramount would immediately issue a recall of this set and re-release it with all the missing footage reinstated, but I somehow doubt that this will happen. This release is still excellent, but the quest for the definitive Ren & Stimpy collection must continue.
All the episodes are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with varying degrees of quality. A number of the shows bear the legend "Digitally Remastered" on the "Ren & Stimpy Show" title card at the start, so these have been cleaned up somewhat to remove damage and slightly lessen the grain. John K, it would seem, was none too pleased with this practice (he wrote a lengthy treatise on the evils of DNR on the now defunct Spumco web site) and calls attention to it during the commentary for Stimpy's Invention. In a handful of episodes, the DNR is so heavy that the fine outlines of the animation are eroded during fast motion (Big Baby Scam is a particularly good example of this side effect). Nonetheless, the overall quality is a bit better than that of the earlier Time Life set, although there are a few slip-ups along the way. Stimpy's Fan Club and A Visit to Anthony are both plagued by excessive colour bleed, and there are some horrendous compression artefacts during the various fades in Untamed World, as well as some moderate macro-blocking during the lengthy "science" sequence of Stimpy's Invention. The episodes are all transferred from an analogue source (much of the show was edited on video, so pulling it off the original film materials was not an option) and were therefore never going to look exactly stunning, but the end result is more than acceptable, and indeed the episodes that were inked and painted digitally (and were therefore not stored on film) look remarkably crisp and smooth.
The audio is standard Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, and as with the image quality is a bit better than its counterpart on the Time Life set, with improved fidelity and a louder overall volume. Big House Blues has very muffled sound, and the version of Son of Stimpy presented here sounds a good deal weaker than that of my old VHS copy, but overall the results are serviceable.
Sadly, there are no subtitles at all. There are Closed Captions, but they will be of no use to viewers outside North America.
The bonus materials are definitely a case of quality over quantity, but more is included than I was expecting, and I am fairly happy with the results. Commentaries are included on six episodes, with the following participants:
Untamed World - Jim Smith, Vincent Waller and Eddie Fitzgerald
Stimpy's Invention - John K, Vincent Waller and Eddie Fitzgerald
Rubber Nipple Salesmen - John K, Vincent Waller and Richard Pursel
Sven Höek - John K, Jim Smith, Eddie Fitzgerald and Katie Rice
Powdered Toast Man - John K, Richard Pursel, Jim Smith and Eddie Fitzgerald
Son of Stimpy - John K, Richard Pursel, Vincent Waller and Eddie Fitzgerald
The commentaries are slightly inconsistent in terms of quality, because often the participants simply fall back on watching the cartoon, praising the gags and naming the artists responsible for various poses. They are at their absolute best when John K gets a chance to vent his rage against Nickelodeon and their various indecencies towards the show. The very first thing you hear on the Sven Höek commentary, for instance, is John K yelling "Jesus Christ, what idiot put this shit at the beginning of my cartoon?" upon seeing the Nickelodeon-created title cards, featuring a live action, lederhosen-clad Bob Camp jigging around with an accordion. Additionally, in the Son of Stimpy commentary, he describes how the infamous mistletoe scene, a firm fan favourite, was initially cut at the demands of the Nickelodeon censors, who noticed its "homosexual undertones", only to ask for it to be reinstated when they heard that a gay Spumco employee was very upset that it had been removed. Other highlights include John K asking Ren & Stimpy fan and layout artist on the recent Adult Party Cartoon, Katie Rice, all manner of outrageous questions, and getting serious answers. Overall these commentaries are a hoot, although not consistently great.
"In the Beginning" is an interesting but all too brief featurette about the creation of the characters and the ideology behind the show, featuring interviews with John K and layout artist Eddie Fitzgerald. At 11 minutes, it only barely scratches the surface but is still absolutely fascinating.
A large Image gallery, featuring storyboard panels, rough character drawings, layout keys and painted background is also included. There is some absolutely great material included here, and it is quite interesting to see a few ideas that were nixed and have therefore languished in the Spumco archives for the past decade.
A pencil test has also been included for Sven Höek, which allows you to see the entire episode in black and white pencil animation form only, with dialogue but no sound effects and music. It's quite interesting to see how some shots were re-timed in post production, and to see the extended "Magic Nose Goblins" gag, another Nickelodeon cut that was not re-inserted into the finished version presented in this DVD set.
There is also a secret commentary for Man's Best Friend, although it is not particularly enlightening. Found by pressing "left" while Man's Best Friend is selected on Disc 2's Extras menu, this track features layout artist Eddie Fitzgerald (whose raucous laughter was featured copiously on the other episode commentaries) sitting on his own, watching the cartoon and cackling with laughter at every single drawing.
Paramount have squandered an excellent opportunity to deliver a knock-out set by failing to ensure that their source materials were complete, but even so this release is a must-buy for animation fans. I honestly believe that The Ren & Stimpy Show is the greatest television series ever created, or at the very least the best modern day cartoon series, beating scripted sitcoms like The Simpsons and South Park by a wide margin. With five episodes trimmed, the situation is hardly ideal, but given the wealth of excellent archive materials that have been unearthed, including previously censored footage and an episode that few have seen outside of dodgy 8th generation VHS copies, plus the fact that Paramount are extremely unlikely to issue a recall to correct their blunder, this is definitely the best release of Ren & Stimpy that we are likely to see at any point in the foreseeable future. So buy, buy, buy...
...and maybe Adult Party Cartoon will get a second season.