The Ren & Stimpy Show: Season Five & Some More of Four Review
For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon that was The Ren & Stimpy Show, please see my reviews of the DVD box sets of Seasons 1 and 2 and Season 3 and the first half of Season 4.
In my review of the previous Ren & Stimpy box set, I discussed the show's steady decline after it was unceremoniously wrestled from the hands of its creator, John Kricfalusi, and his studio Spumco. This set, the third of three releases encompassing the original 1991-1995 series, contains the tail-end of the train-wreck that the show had become, and unsurprisingly features some of the worst episodes of the entire series. As we saw in the previous set, many of the problems stem from a simple matter of the crew at Games Animation (the studio set up to produce the show after John K. was fired) not properly understanding the characters or format with which they were working. The remainder of the problems, however, can be attributed to a punishing schedule and a growing sense of ennui on the part of the show's cartoonists. This may be overly presumptious for me to say, but I strongly doubt that many people, whether they worked on the show or simply made up its audience, mourned its death when it was eventually cancelled in 1995.
As the show becomes more and more rushed, the episodes themselves become more and more generic, with routine sitcom situations taking the place of the inspired concepts of the first two seasons. At least half of the episodes in this set are based on what must have been nothing more than under-developed one-line ideas - "Ren can't get to sleep", "Ren and Stimpy get snowed in", "Ren is allergic to Stimpy", etc. - that could have been applied to any cartoon characters. These episodes are farmed out (many of them to an independent Australian studio with even less of an understanding of the show than the Games crew) with the same level of passion that you would expect from people whose occupation was to count beans.
Other episodes show more promise, having come from fairly inspired ideas. In these cases, the problems are all in the execution. Some, like Ren Needs Help, feature more interesting storylines that actually open up the potential to explore the characters themselves. In this episode, Ren's insanity becomes so intense that Stimpy has him admitted to a psychiatric hospital - the perfect opportunity to get inside the head of the psychotic chihuahua. Indeed, when Spumco was contracted to create new episodes of the show in 2003, in the form of Ren & Stimpy: Adult Party Cartoon (which will hopefully see the light of day on DVD before very long), John K. used the similarly-themed Ren Seeks Help, easily the best piece of animation in the last decade, to do just that. Ren Needs Help, however, falls to pieces almost immediately, with its detached air of indifference and wildly uneven characterization. (John K. points out in the audio commentary for this episode that watching Ren Needs Help and Ren Seeks Help back to back is a fascinating exercise in how two different directors can approach the same concept in completely different ways.)
The most incredible thing about these shows is just how depressing they are to watch. It's incredibly difficult to explain with mere words (nothing can compare to actually experiencing the full horror for yourself), but watching more than a handful of these cartoons at any given time is such a mind-numbingly tedious exercise that, for some reason, I lose all interest in everything. I suspect that this is probably an accurate representation of the way the crew members themselves were feeling when they produced these episodes. Of all the artists who became directors at Games, the strongest was probably Bill Wray (who served in the capacity of background colour stylist on the original shows), whose cartoons, while flawed, were at least more interesting than those of his compatriots. That's hardly a glowing recommendation, but of all the shows in this set, his trilogy - Aloha Höek, My Shiny Friend and Sammy and Me - are noticeably stronger in terms of both visuals and characterization.
The inspired moments that characterized the show in its early days are few and far between with these shows. A handful of episodes are slightly more watchable than the others, but in all seriousness, working your way through these episodes religiously is bound to be an unsatisfying and more often than not frustrating experience. Of the 33 cartoons featured in this set, the best is undoubtedly Ren's Brain. This was an episode that was originally developed at Spumco during the show's second season, and is one of the few that was actually storyboarded at that studio and therefore, plot-wise at least, survives in more or less the form originally intended by its creator. The execution is not too impressive, it must be said, with some very muddy artwork, poor timing and weak voice acting, but the concept itself is still there, and after enduring so many of the hack-jobs present in this box set, it is something of a relief to come across an episode that still contains a hint of the genius of the original concept, however faint it might be.
Like the previous two sets, all the episodes are presented non-anamorphically in their original broadcast ratio of 1.33:1, with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio. The presentation is adequate, but once again variable. Some episodes look remarkably crisper than others, and although all suffer from various analogue artefacts (dot crawl, colour bleed, low level noise) to some degree, by and large they look fine. The visuals in these cartoons are hardly works of art, anyway.
Once again, there are no subtitles, although Closed Captions are available to viewers in NTSC territories.
Please note that, once again, a number of the episodes in this set have been subjected to time cuts and, in several examples, electronically sped up (these episodes are noticeable because the fields can be seen to jump up and down constantly). Not being overly familiar with these episodes, I am not in a position to provide a detailed list of cuts. Still, be advised that Paramount have once again failed to source complete versions of these cartoons.
Like the previous set, the only bonus materials available are a series of audio commentaries on select episodes. Perhaps to make up for the poor quality of the shows themselves, this set has more commentaries than either of the two other releases - a grand total of 14 tracks, versus 6 for the first set and 11 for the second.
This time round, a number of the commentaries feature the impressions of two Games artists, Bill Wray and Scott Wills. On some tracks they appear together, while on others, one or the other is teamed up with John K. After so many years of back-biting and online brawling, it's nice to hear these artists seemingly reconciled and actually discussing the strengths and weaknesses of these shows in a constructive manner (although on one track, Wray and Wills remark that their theory as to why John K. is being so civil to them is that he is being paid handsomely for his contributions to the commentaries). Also of interest is the fact that two episodes, Superstitious Stimpy and I Was a Teenage Stimpy, feature separate commentaries for both the Spumco and Games crews, and the differing reactions of the two crews are very interesting: whereas the Spumco team lay into both shows with equal abandon, the Games artists are extremely dismissing of the former but lavish much praise on the latter. (For the record, I happen to think that both shows are particularly awful.)
The quality of these tracks is really not up to the standard of those on the previous set, mainly because the participants are running out of things to say. For example, background colours, a regular topic, a discussed on at least three tracks, with no new information brought to the table (although Scott Wills' criticism of the recent CGI movie Madagascar, on which he worked as a background artist, is very interesting). On other occasions, John K., who admits on one track that it is getting harder and harder to say anything worthwhile about the shows, resorts to more and more unusual tactics in order to fill air-time, on a couple of occasions bringing in Michael Pataki, the voice of George Liquor, who regales us with his bizarre and often hilarious ramblings.
Oh yeah, and one episode, Big Flakes, features another of those "in-character" commentaries, with John K. as Ren and Eric Bauza as Stimpy. Those who read my review of the previous set will know how I felt about the in-character track on that release, and my opinion of the one on this set is more or less the same.
Overall, these tracks are worth listening to, but they are patchy in terms of overall content. Still, it was nice to hear from some of the Games people.
With this 3-disc set, The Ren & Stimpy Show finally comes to an end, and sadly, the most positive thing I can say about it that at least we can now look forward to the upcoming DVD release of the fantastic Adult Party Cartoon. Watching this entire series, from its groundbreaking start, through its amazing peak, through its steady decline, to its dire end, is a depressing experience to say the least, but at least now fans of the show have the opportunity to collect all the episodes together and watch the deterioration for themselves. A classic case of a missed opportunity, for a while it looked like Ren & Stimpy could have gone down in history as the best made-for-TV cartoon ever created - a label that could still be applied to its first and second seasons - but having now witnessed its disintegration in chronological order, I just wish Nickelodeon had cancelled it sooner.