Michael Mackenzie has reviewed The Best of Ren & Stimpy, a 3-disc release featuring select episodes from the first two seasons of the cartoon that revitalised television animation. With this being the first ever release of the dysfunctional duo on DVD, will it live up to the extremely high expectations of its hungry fans?
The Ren & Stimpy Show 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. Now, twelve years after it originally premiered, the creators of the show are back in charge of it, producing new episodes for the adult network TNN, and the first ever DVD set has been released, containing episodes from the first two seasons.
For those who have never heard of Ren & Stimpy, it is 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.
The creator of Ren & Stimpy 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. Ren & Stimpy was designed 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.
When Ren & Stimpy 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 cleary 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 dreck 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. The show has been described by more than a couple of critics as a statement about the rise of AIDS in the US, and it is no secret that Ren and Stimpy are a gay couple in a sadomasochistic relationship (Ren beats Stimpy, and Stimpy enjoys it). Such subtleties are, of course, lost on the average viewer, but 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.
In reality, this set should have been called “Ren & Stimpy: The First One-and-a-Half Seasons”, because although every episode from the first season is included, the second season is very incomplete, with only eight out of a total of nineteen episodes included. Add to that the fact that the episodes have been thrown on to the discs in what looks like a completely random order, and you have a very confusing mess. Another major problem with this set is that a number of the episodes have been censored. When Spumco were hired by TNN last year to produce a new run of episodes, John K provided his own personal uncut “protection masters” for all the episodes he directed. These were brought into circulation on TNN, but they have not made their way on to this collection. Some of the episodes included here are in fact more edited than the versions previously made available. I am referring specifically to Powdered Toast Man, an episode censored by Nickelodeon after a grand total of three people complained about it. This cartoon, however, continued to air uncut on MTV in America and internationally, but it is the cut version that is included in this set. This is made even more bizarre by the fact that Sven Höek, an episode that was censored before broadcast and again a couple of years later, is presented here using the first, milder edit rather than the second, more severe one. The episodes, it would seem, have been culled from various sources so that some are actually older versions than others.
Because of the somewhat schizophrenic nature of this collection, it is worthwhile to list the episodes included in their correct production order, and also whether or not they are censored:Pilot Episode: Big House Blues (censored)
Stimpy’s Big Day
The Big Shot
The Boy Who Cried Rat
The Littlest Giant
In the Army
Powdered Toast Man (censored)
Out West (censored)
Rubber Nipple Salesmen
Dog Show (censored)
Sven Höek (censored) (music and sound effects completed after Spumco was fired)
The Great Outdoors (completed after Spumco was fired)
Perhaps the fact that the first season is provided uncensored and in its entirety will be enough of a hook for many people to buy this set, but the presentation of the second season and of the pilot episode is incredibly frustrating and shows a complete lack of commitment on TimeLife’s part. Several fan favourite episodes, such as the ambitious Christmas special Stimpy’s First Fart and the hilarious Big Baby Scam, are completely missing, and are sure to be missed given their popularity.
Many of the bumper cartoons such as fake commercials and “goodbye” skits are also included, although as with the episodes, they stop about half-way through the second season. These bumpers are actually counted as full episodes on the set’s packaging, which in my opinion is pretty close to false advertising.
Had this DVD set included all the episodes from the first two seasons, uncut, I would without a doubt have given it a perfect 10 out of 10 score. Ren & Stimpy is not always immediately satisfying, and some episodes work better than others, but I am of the firm opinion that it is the single greatest television show of all time. This release is sadly incomplete, with a number of its best episodes censored, and several more minor masterpieces missing entirely. That said, this release is still worth purchasing, if only to preserve some of the greatest modern animation on a lasting format.
All the episodes are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (non-anamorphic, of course). The picture quality varies wildly, sometimes within individual episodes.
The first season was, for the most part, shot on poor quality film, and as result these episodes suffer a little in terms of clarity. The second season episodes are generally of a higher standard, but there is still some fluctuation in terms of quality. During the second season, the episodes that were animated in Canada by Carbunkle Cartoons were transferred digitally, whereas the episodes animated in Korea continued to be shot on film. Only two digital episodes (out of a total of five), Out West and Sven Höek, are included in this set, and they are the best-looking of the bunch.
It should also be noted that some video editing was done in post production (whether due to censorship or to correct timing and animation glitches), and in such instances, the image quality degrades even further, becoming quite pixellated. These occurrences are thankfully rare, and are less of a problem during the second season than the first.
The most striking aspect of these transfers is the vibrancy of the colours. Especially in the second season episodes, the colours are much more vivid than in any of the TV broadcasts or pre-recorded VHS releases. Given the fact that these are TV shows, dot crawl is a continual artifact, but there is remarkably little colour bleed. The encoding is also pretty good, with no major visible compression artifacts.
Overall, these DVDs look a bit better than the TV broadcasts, but not by a huge margin (they certainly look superior to the DVD sets of The Simpsons). The quality could no doubt have been improved if John K’s master prints had been used (judging by what I have heard from TNN viewers, they are certainly a lot cleaner than these), but I’m beginning to sound like a broken record now.
The audio is standard Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, the same as the original broadcasts. It sounds a little thin at times, but at least the dialogue is always clear. There aren’t too many clever multi-channel effects, although the Space Madness episode does have two or three interesting uses of stereo. The music score, sourced from classical music libraries and the works of the great Raymond Scott, always sounds excellent. Bearing in mind that Ren & Stimpy is a show where the audio (including the dialogue) is far less important than the visuals, the sound stands up reasonably well.
There are no subtitles at all.
The menu design is not exquisite, but it gets the job done. There is some animation (clips from the show) and music, but nothing to make your jaw drop.
This is, without a doubt, some of the worst packaging I have ever seen. All the artwork is taken from the Ren & Stimpy style guide, a PDF version of which can be found on the internet if you know where to look. The layout is extremely primitive, and I honestly would have thought it was bootleg material had I not received it from a reputable retailer.
All that is included in the way of bonus material is a sing-along on each of the three discs: one is the “Happy Happy Joy Joy” song from Stimpy’s Invention, one is the Muddy Mudskipper theme from Stimpy’s Big Day, and the final is the Hanging Song from Out West.
This is, for all intents and purposes, a bare-bones release, although you might consider the inclusion of the bumpers and fake commercials to be extras. That said, TimeLife has marketed the bumpers as actual episodes, which in my mind is nothing short of defective advertising, as most of them run for two minutes at most.
This release is flawed not only by being incomplete but by having fallen prey to pointless and often ham-fisted censorship. Although hardcore fans of the show will no doubt be salivating for a DVD release of Ren & Stimpy, these hardcore fans will be the ones who know the material inside out and will immediately notice the cuts. For the casual fan, this represents a fun little packagage that should provide a decent amount of enjoyment, and if you have never seen an episode of Ren & Stimpy, you should definitely crawl out from under your rock and purchase this set, as it is the best quality release of the series so far. In the end, however, I feel obliged to make people aware that this masterpiece has been irrationally butchered and is therefore not the essential purchase that it should have been.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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