Ren & Stimpy: The Lost Episodes Review
The very fact that Ren & Stimpy: The Lost Episodes exists is something of a miracle. As I recounted in my reviews for the box sets of the original Ren & Stimpy Show, the series was unceremoniously yanked from the hands of its creator, John Kricfalusi, and his studio, Spumco, by children's network Nickelodeon in September 1992. The show then struggled along for a further three years, but, bereft of the guiding vision of its creator, died a slow and agonising death as the quality of the episodes gradually got worse and worse. Then, in 2003, Ren and Stimpy made a brief and little-publicised return to television, once again under the control of John K, in the form of Ren & Stimpy: Adult Party Cartoon on Viacom subsidiary network SpikeTV (at the time called TNN), whose slogan "the first network for men", and the promise that, this time, no holds would be barred, suggested that audiences would finally get to see the cartoon duo as their creator had always intended, without being subjected to the whims of network meddling and censorship.
Adult Party Cartoon was short-lived, however. After only three of the intended six episodes had been aired, it was abruptly yanked from the schedules and disappeared into TV oblivion. The precise reason for this is unclear, with a number of possibilities being suggested, ranging from the later episodes taking longer to complete than had originally been envisaged, to Spike getting cold feet about the show's risqué content, to the network's management changing hands and deciding to axe their animation block altogether. For whatever reason, almost two hours of feature quality animation, produced on a shoestring budget, were left to languish in the vaults, seen only at a small number of specially-arranged public screenings. Finally, however, the entire six-episode series has emerged in its complete, unexpurgated form on DVD.
Viewers expecting a direct continuation of the original Ren & Stimpy Show will certainly be in for a rude awakening. Rather than simply picking up from where he left off in 1992, John K takes the show in a dramatically different, yet still familiar, direction. The average length of each episode is now considerably longer than the usual 11-minute format of the Nickelodeon series, with the shortest clocking in at 20 minutes and the longest running for a whopping 40 minutes. As a result, the episodes are often considerably less concerned with sticking rigidly to telling a single, coherent story and instead frequently go off on tangents for the sake of lengthy gags that are seemingly unconnected to the main plot. A lot of these gags have their roots in the web cartoons that John K pioneered in the mid to late 1990s, especially in shows like The Goddamn George Liquor Program and Weekend Pussy Hunt, which were "broadcast" in serial form with episodes lasting around two minutes, many of which were dedicated to playing out a single, isolated visual gag. Some people have criticised the show for its meandering nature, but in most cases I consider the quality of the animated acting so good that, much in the same way that people are happy to watch Mr. Bean or a stand-up comic performing a sketch for the sake of pure comedy, I am content to sit back and enjoy the range of emotions and subtle nuances that are present in every scene.
And the quality of the acting is really, really good. Animated acting is something of a lost art these days, with shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons relying on a limited range of reused expressions and moods (if they contain acting at all - South Park is the perfect example of a show that gets away with murder simply because, apparently, it looks bad "on purpose"). Even Disney's films, which are considered by many to be the pinnacle of animated acting, are more about broad theatrical gestures combined with generic facial expressions. In contrast, Ren & Stimpy, and indeed all of Spumco's cartoons, have always been about capturing real emotions tailored to specific moments. In The Lost Episodes, you'll never see the same expression used twice, and yet somehow the characters remain recognisable as Ren and Stimpy (the shows made by Nickelodeon between 1993 and 1995 often featured drawings that were weird for the sake of being weird, with the result being that the characters ceased to look like themselves). When Ren whispers his horrifying secrets into Mr. Horse's ear in Ren Seeks Help, his face becomes so elongated that he looks more like a jackal than a chihuahua, and yet every nuance of his performance is quite clearly that of Ren Höek. Even Stimpy, who always struck me as being a much harder character to invent unique expressions for, gets to express a far wider range of emotions than before, especially in Stimpy's Pregnant, where, ecstatically awaiting the birth of his first child, sprouts a pair of droopy breasts and becomes more feminine than ever before.
And yes, the new series is a lot more lewd than its predecessor: the title Adult Party Cartoon is certainly appropriate. And, while its content is considerably less extreme than some of the material featured in shows like South Park - you'll never see Stimpy getting an anal probe or Ren defecating on George W. Bush's head - the idea of the dog and cat duo being homosexual lovers in Onward and Upward (something that was often strongly hinted at in the original series, but rarely shown explicitly) or oogling at buxom ladies in Naked Beach Frenzy seems to have been too much for some viewers. This, it seems, is especially true for certain American audiences - often the same people, ironically, that happily swallow South Park and all of its debaucheries. There is a playful innocence to all of Ren and Stimpy's x-rated antics - as co-director and original Ren & Stimpy big-shot Vincent Waller pointed out during a particularly heated message board argument back in 2003, poor little Stimpy doesn't even know what being gay means, and I can only urge those that get turned off by the notion of Ren and Stimpy sharing a bed or having to scoop shit out of a toilet with their hands to remember that sexual innuendo and poo jokes are but a small park of a much wider canvas. Yes, there is toilet humour, but there is also hilarious Three Stooges-style slapstick, intense psychodrama and real human emotion.
Indeed, the wide variety of material on offer is both the show's greatest strength and its worst enemy. Adult Party Cartoon is about as close as you can get to an experimental cartoon series made for prime time, as John K and crew throw in everything but the kitchen sink, hoping something will stick. A lot of it does, but some of it doesn't. The show definitely features the rough edges and abrupt clunkers that are only natural for a series that dares to experiment and continually reinvent itself instead of relying on a set formula. Every episode of The Simpsons, for example, is pretty much the same, but each of the six episodes on offer in this set are completely different visually and tonally. Even the characters' voices continually evolve throughout the show. Eric Bauza, who was brought in to replace Billy West as the voice of Stimpy when West refused to participate, takes some time to find his mark, but eventually succeeds in producing a shockingly accurate imitation of the original Stimpy voice while still managing to add in his own Larry Fine-inspired touches. John K, meanwhile, returns as the voice of Ren and thankfully banishes all the horrible memories of West's eardrum-piercing rendition of the character from the 1993-1995 period. Ren is now more throaty and twisted than ever, and in Ren Seeks Help some of the things John K does with his vocal chords have to be heard to be believed. It's a shame, therefore, that some of the secondary voices are not of the same standard. While Ren & Stimpy veteran Cheryl Chase does return for three of the six episodes in her usual capacity as the show's main female vocalist (providing the dialogue for Ren's mother in Ren Seeks Help, Ralph Bakshi's date in Fire Dogs 2 and both "Wife" and a grieving widow in Altruists), many of the additional voices supplied by Canadian members of the crew (the production was split between Ottawa and Los Angeles) leave something to be desired. That's not to say that Canadians are bad voice actors (and let's not forget that both John K and Eric Bauza, as Ren and Stimpy respectively, are of Canadian extraction!), but in general, their accents, to my ears, sound a little out of place in Ren and Stimpy's world.
Of the six episodes spread across this 2-disc set, some are definitely better than others. The first two that were produced (although, interestingly, the last two in the order in which they are presented here), Onward and Upward and Fire Dogs 2, are generally a lot more rough around the edges, with weaker timing and a higher fail rate in terms of gags than the later episodes. The former is constrained by its limited locations (a bum's mouth and then a spittoon), and the animated acting is not in this episode strong enough to carry the show, while the latter, which features real-life cartoon legend Ralph Bakshi entering into a partnership with the pair, feels slightly too much like an extended in-joke to be entirely successful. The third episode to be produced, meanwhile, Ren Seeks Help, is, for my money, far and away the best of the six, and in fact I'd go so far to call it the finest piece of animation, TV or theatrical, to be produced in the last decade. Watching it for the first time back in 2003, it was the one that made me think "Hey, they've still got it!", and, looking back on it now, I completely stand by my original evaluation. Of the remainder of the episodes, Naked Beach Frenzy would probably have made a superb 11-minute short, but, at 25 minutes, feels stretched a little thin, while both Altruists and Stimpy's Pregnant handle their extended running time significantly better, even if they are not without their flaws. The latter, especially, suffers from some jarring music editing in the first act, in addition to an overly portentous opening monologue that, if it's supposed to be funny, completely misses the mark.
All in all, though, Ren & Stimpy: The Lost Episodes is a resounding success. It proves, beyond any doubt, that John Kricfalusi was the driving force of the original Ren & Stimpy Show, and that the events of September 25th 1992 should never have happened. We've waited nearly a decade for this DVD, and I just hope that we don't have to wait that long for more episodes.
The six episodes are spread evenly across two discs. As mentioned above, they are not presented in chronological order, which, given that the first two episodes were the weakest of the bunch, is not surprising. Each episode is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (non-anamorphic, of course) and sourced from the original digital master files. Given the extremely variable image quality of the previous Ren & Stimpy DVD sets, I am pleased to report that the transfers here are pretty much perfect. There is no edge enhancement, artificial softening or colour bleed, and compression artefacts are kept to a minimum. The only real flaw, if you can call it that, is that the episodes are presented in an interlaced format, but this is faithful to the original masters, which feature some video-sourced editing and effects work.
The audio is plain old Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, and for the most part it is pretty effective. In comparison with the original show, a lot more use is made of split-channel effects, and, given how much the Spumco crew love to play with non-sequitur sound effects, you can hear some really wacky stuff going on in both speakers that may take several viewings to spot. The only real flaw here is that sometimes, when the shouting gets particularly intense, the audio has a slight "booming" effect to it (a fault of the original recordings rather than this DVD).
No subtitles are provided, but American viewers will be pleased to hear that all of the extras are Closed Captioned.
One of the reasons for this set taking so long to be released, supposedly, is the sheer amount of bonus material on offer. And it is indeed a feature-packed release, loaded to the gills with interviews, animatics and easter eggs.
The first disc begins with trailers for shows like South Park and Drawn Together, which simply serve to unintentionally highlight how much better Ren & Stimpy is than any other animated show on air today (and I'm not just talking about the visuals). Following this are video introductions by Weird Al Yankovic, a long term Ren & Stimpy fan whose latest music video John K is currently animating. Al rambles and gushes, but somehow still manages to remain engaging and provides a great deal of insightful information, which really sets the tone for the rest of the interviews. John K also does an intro to the set, talking about his usual pet hates - i.e. the crummy state of the animation industry both now and when he started out in the business - and explaining how the new series, and this set, came to fruition against all odds. After that, it's on with the shows.
Each episode is preceeded by a skippable introduction, either by John K on his own or with a colleague. Each time, he sets the episode we are about to watch in context and provides a brief account of its origins and production history. The absolute highlights are definitely the one pertaining to Fire Dogs 2, in which he gives an extremely animated account of his experiences with former boss (and star of the episode) Ralph Bakshi, and Ren Seeks Help, where he tears into that most horrible invention, the cartoon scriptwriter, and tells a hilarious story about what he and fellow cartoonists used to do with the scripts they were handed out back in the 80s.
Every cartoon is also followed by a post-episode discussion between various members of the crew, which range from brief (5 minutes for Altruists) to almost feature-length (18 minutes for Ren Seeks Help). A whole range of different participants are present, including co-director Vincent Waller, storyboard artist Eddie Fitzgerald, layout artists Katie Rice and Luke Cormican, voice actor Eric Bauza, flash animation pioneer (and one of the main originators for the plot of Stimpy's Pregnant) Annmarie Ashkar, producer/sound editor Stephen Worth, and Cow & Chicken creator (and animator on the original Ren & Stimpy pilot) David Feiss, who seemed to have crashed the party. All of the interviews, and indeed the episode introductions, were filmed in John K's living room, and various participants wander in and out frame, many of them clutching beer bottles, which gives the proceedings a very relaxed, informal affair. As with the Weird Al introduction, the conversation tends to ramble a bit at times, but those who love animation, and especially Ren & Stimpy, should get a real kick out of hearing all manner of crazy behind the scenes anecdotes (Eddie Fitzgerald's story about accidentally stealing the titanic Ralph Bakshi's car keys is a killer). In all, there is nearly 70 minutes of interview footage (not counting the introductions), and despite its imposing running time, I ploughed through the whole lot in one sitting and found myself thirsty for more.
The rest of the bonus materials are comprised of several behind the scenes goodies that allow you to see various episodes in an incomplete form. Naked Beach Frenzy has around 11 minutes of animatics (mainly very rough storyboards, but with some layout poses and rough animation frames thrown in for good measure), 2 minutes of pencil tests, a 2-minute storyboard to final film comparison, and a gallery of colour models for the various characters. Ren Seeks Help, meanwhile, is accompanied by the entire episode in pencil test form with the finished film in split-screen, a 2-minute animatic of the "frog torture" sequence, and yet more colour models.
Finally, a number of easter eggs are hidden on each disc. They're not particularly hard to find, and most of them run for only a few seconds, but there are some neat little surprises to be found.
All in all, this is a great selection of extras. Some people have expressed disappointment at the lack of audio commentaries, but personally I think that the interviews and introductions are just as good, if not better, as they allow John K to indulge in the great personal experience stories that were the main draw of the commentaries provided for the DVDs of the original show without having to be constrained by the length of the episodes themselves. My only disappointment is that the hilarious live action parody of The Honeymooners, starring Ralph Bakshi himself, that was used to bookend the first few scenes of Fire Dogs 2 when the rest of the animation was not finished in time, has not been included here. It was said, back when it originally aired in 2003, that it was only going to be shown once, and I guess they weren't kidding.
Ren & Stimpy: The Lost Episodes may have been gestating for a long time before it was finally released, but the wait has definitely been worth it. Featuring all six episodes in their proper, uncut form, along with excellent transfers and some killer bonus materials, everyone who calls themselves cartoon fans owe it to themselves to pick up a copy of this great set. Highly recommended.