It arrived unannounced like a cataclysmic storm, packing the kind of instant success punch that very few cartoons ever produce. From the first moment it sprung its satire and surrealism onto an unwary public, a genuine hysteria ensued. As the coaxial cables cooled down and the first few episodes were over, a new giant in the realm of animated anarchy was crowned. No one had seen anything like it. It spoke to a modern sensibility as it recalled several bygone eras. The jokes were as crude as the drawings, and all the elements that made pen and ink programs so successful – understandable plots, consistent character modeling, likeable heroes – were virtually non-existent within its concept of comics. And yet Nickelodeon's The Ren and Stimpy Show was an outright phenomenon, an 'out of the gate' smash that left conventional animation houses holding their heads in disbelief. How could a series centering on a couple of gross, despicable characters with little or no redeeming value be embraced by the audience – and why were adults watching as well? The humor was subterranean sophomoric, like the rhymes and riffs written on the bathroom walls of an elementary school. Gas was passed with unbelievable frequency, and there was a level of mean-spiritedness and menace that seemed to suggest a few very disturbed minds behind the cell-based shenanigans. Ren and Stimpy was a strange, unexplainable triumph, one surrounded by several befuddling ideals.
Perhaps that explains why the show dissipated as quickly as it exploded onto the scene. Unlike similar slices of scatology, like South Park, Ren and Stimpy started skipping that telltale seafood - a.k.a. shark jumping - within a few short months of its arrival. Fights with Nickelodeon resulted in delays and disgruntled participants. Soon, the main driving force behind the show was out and a new team of talented, if far tamer, animators were in place. Some can argue that the show was never the same once Ren and Stimpy's "father" – cartoon crackpot senior savant John Kricfalusi – left the roost under protest. And you know what? Watching all 32 episodes offered by Paramount on the new DVD release The Ren and Stimpy Show UNCUT – The First and Second Season illustrates that something strange really did happen to the show once the basic cable kid's channel starting sticking its nose into the production. And the result was a fundamental dismissal of what was once a paragon to peculiarity.
As Roger Myers Jr. once opined, the cartoon hierarchy goes a little something like this: mouse, cat...dog. And in the world of Ren and Stimpy, we have the post-apocalyptic pronouncement of Dr. Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters: felines and canines living together. Ren Hoëk is a demented, bitter bastard, an asthma hound Chihuahua with a pissed off chip on his shoulder the size of Stinky Wizzleteats trousers. Most of his anger is aimed at his roommate, adversary and quasi life partner, Stimpson J. Cat (otherwise known as Stimpy). Stimpy is a moron, a dufus, a schmoe - a simpleton trapped in an imbeciles bloated body. He loves his cat box (and the bountiful mounds of used Gritty Kitty litter that fills its form) and lives by the strange, sage-like mantra – "Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy". Together, these craven creatures share a TV show named after them. They also allow the animator's pen into their personal life. We glimpse the duo in front of and behind the camera, living the lives of vaulted celebrities while playing 'down on their luck' losers in their fictional world.
As an actual series, The Ren and Stimpy Show started out following the basic parameters of kid vid. Centering around the comic couple, this show within a show had all the trappings of a Saturday morning stalwart from the 60s. First, there would be a self-contained cartoon, a short story centering around one of the classic animation angles (our poor poverty-stricken pets looking for food/shelter/money). Occasionally, the storyline would slip over into the second half of the show, with the resolution of the problem always coming at the expense of our heroes. In between, fictitious company's like Blammo advertised their products. Especially popular were the twisted toy Log (featuring the catchy motto "It's better than bad...it's good) and the breakfast treat Powdered Toast (with its superhero spokesman Powdered Toast Man). Stimpy hosted his own individual segment, a science based Q&A called "Ask Dr. Stupid". And every once in a while, Ren would function as an on-the-spot reporter to get the latest 'man on the street' update from a contemplative character known as Mr. Horse. And just to make sure you knew this was a special shared experience between you and the animated animals, Ren and Stimpy would invite you into their underground clubhouse (deep beneath the Earth's crust) and have you swear an oath of allegiance (including promises to make "under leg noises" and to "wear unwashed lederhosen").
Eventually, as the series progressed, the idea that Ren and Stimpy actually hosted a show was tossed out, and the series followed a set format for the next four-plus years. Each half-hour was crafted out of two short cartoons –either separate or based in a continuing storyline – with some of the bogus Madison Avenue madness tossed in to color the comedy. Running bits included the on-going sci-fi adventures or Commander Hoëk and Cadet Stimpy, and tainted takes on classic fairytales. We see both examples of the programming premise on the DVD box set from Paramount. Spilt up over a trio of discs, we get the following episodes from the show's first two years:
"Stimpy's Big Day" – our favorite cat enters a poem writing contest.
"The Big Shot" – Stimpy's efforts pay off, with a chance to be on TV.
"Robin Hoëk" – the classic myth, told in a decidedly twisted manner.
"Nurse Stimpy" – Ren is deathly ill and Stimpy must save his life.
"Space Madness" – Ren goes whacko after spending too much time in space.
"The Boy Who Cried Rat" – the pair enter into pest control to make some money.
"Fire Dogs" – looking for work, our heroes become fire department Dalmatians.
"The Littlest Giant" – another tainted tale of an under appreciated ogre.
"Marooned" – Commander Hoëk and Stimpy are stranded on a strange planet.
"Untamed World" – the duo explore the bizarre beasts of the animal kingdom.
"Black Hole" – Commander Hoëk and Stimpy get sucked into a black hole.
"Stimpy's Invention" – our crazy cat invents the Happy Helmet for Ren.
"Ren's Toothache" – always amiss with his oral hygiene, Ren suffers a bad tooth.
"Rubber-Nipple Salesmen" – the boys go into business for themselves.
"Sven Hoëk" – Ren's Alpine cousin comes to visit.
"Haunted House" – it's the guys vs. a slow-witted spook in a mysterious manor.
"Mad Dog Hoëk" – Ren and Stimpy become wrestlers.
"In the Army" – Ren and Stimpy sign up to fight for their country.
"Big House Blues" – homeless and hungry, our heroes end up in the pound.
"Big Baby Scam" – the guys trade places with a couple of infants.
"Dog Show" – George Liquor enters Ren and Stimpy in a canine contest.
"Man's Best Friend" – Liquor wants a pet, and buys the boys for companionship.
"Monkey See...Monkey Don't" – the boys play ape to win a place in the zoo
"Powdered Toast Man" – the first adventure of the breakfast based superhero.
"Fake Dad" - Ren decides to become a "Big Brother" for an inmate.
"Out West" – Ren and Stimpy sign up to be villains for a stupid sheriff.
"Stimpy's Fan Club" – Ren is tired of Stimpy getting all the attention.
"The Great Outdoors" – the boys go camping.
"The Cat Who Laid the Golden Hairballs" – when cat vomit becomes valuable, Ren wants to cash in.
"Visit to Anthony" – the guys make a small child's wish come true.
"The Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen" – Ren and Stimpy volunteer for a suicide mission.
"Son of Stimpy"/ "Stimpy's First Fart" – our flatulent cat gives birth to a "son", Stinky.
To hear creator and lead crabapple John Kricfalusi describe it, the animated world of Ren and Stimpy is a never-ending battle between two prickly personality types with whom the jaded genius has had many run ins with: the retard and the asshole. All throughout his entire career, he had to tolerate the talentless input from both of those borderline brain-dead psychological entities and you can sense his relish in defaming these feebs with his depiction of his deranged dog and cockeyed cat. Indeed, almost all of Ren and Stimpy seems like an extended therapy session for John K. and his own fragile, flawed psyche. The more you learn about him, the more his incredibly dark cartoon comedy reflects his phobias and ire. From its reliance on the pop art zest of 1950s retro-kitsch designs to the depiction of humans as either burly breadwinners or overbearing bullies, there is a wealth of mixed messages inside every steaming scene in this series. The Ren and Stimpy Show is indeed a rarity in the animation field, one few have followed in the late 80s rebirth of pen and ink interest. It so completely reflected the unbalanced mind of its creator that you can almost see the bats buzzing around in Kricfalusi's bewildering kid-vid belfry. Never before – or since – had a cartoon show tried to obliterate the traditions that came before it: the longstanding icons of Warner Bros., Hanna-Barbara and above all, Disney. Yet that was Kricfalusi's plan from the start – take what we know about traditional animated cartoons and fudge the factory out of it. John was convinced that some new form of comedy would ensue.
And he was right. Above all the other elements working within the show (the images of the past pounding into the future, the superb sense of the surreal) it was the oddball humor that initially hooked fans. Certainly, when a cartoon cat continually cuts the cheese or a hand-drawn dog gets smashed by a shovel, a whole set of internal laughter instincts are triggered. How many times have we seen Daffy Duck get blasted by the end of Elmer Fudd's shotgun, or seen a certain coyote meet the business portion of a 16 ton anvil? These visuals are part of everyone's rote sense of animated wit. Like pictogram Pavlov's pups, we see said antics and immediately, mindlessly, bray. But Ren and Stimpy had more to its merriment than the basic violence-oriented humor of old time Hollywood. There was a combination of cleverness, ranging from hyper-intellectual insult gags (Ren's retort to Stimpy: "you bloated sack of protoplasm") to the carefully crafted non-linear laughs (Mr. Horse's trademark "I Don't Like It" or the imprisoned Walrus of "Rubber Nipple Salesmen", who warns the boys to "Call the Police"). Combined with the plentiful toilet humor, obvious bows to an adolescent sense of mayhem and more than enough filthy animal gags to choke a chimp, Ren and Stimpy did everything and anything it could for a laugh. Yet it is not always remembered for its ratio of rib ticklers to knee slappers. Indeed, in at least two other instances, stylistic choices made by the show are far more memorable.
It's surprising to see just how much Ren and Stimpy relied on the surreal and the dadaist art ideals to manufacture its vision. This is a show that uses broad caricature, intricately detailed illustrations, puke-inducing primary colorforms and untold insular nods to craft a world both recognizable and completely foreign, a manic mixture of reality based elements placed into a totally implausible dreamscape. Certainly, during the several journeys into uncharted regions (space, the Canadian tundra, suburbia) the use of exaggerated and phantasmagorical imagery is warranted and welcome. But to incorporate it into the character modeling as well is outright cartoon sacrilege. Almost every animation house who has tried to sell its stories to the public has strived to keep their individual icons recognizable and consistent. Not Kricfalusi and the staff at Ren and Stimpy. Along with the Dali-esque backdrops and 50s futurama art deco set designs, John and his jokesters continuously corrupted the way Ren and Stimpy appeared. These versions even had labels – "Cute Ren", "Insane Ren", "Dipstick Stimpy", "Contemplative Stimpy", etc. But the facial facets didn't stop there. Kricfalusi mandated that his animated creations NEVER repeat the same gesture or expression, and so artists had to invent and reinvent ways to show happiness or sadness, anger or angst. The results are remarkable, setting a standard of psychotic psychedelia that both augments and improves much of Ren and Stimpy's hi-jinx.
But this is not the only glitch in the standard operating procedure of this children's cartoon. Silly and surreal, Ren and Stimpy is also scary. It is eerie. It showcases creepiness and sinister corruption better than a million illustrated autopsy reports. Part of the peril comes from the human beings buffering the boys. All the men are 40s archetypes, hard-working middle-aged homunculi with crew cuts, bulging necks and sinewy, muscular bodies. They suggest power and pain, lurking over our always in miniature mammals like belligerent bullies over a fresh faced nerd. When angered, these bread-winning brawlers turn terrifying: veins inflate, teeth gnash and sweat pours from their furrowed brows. As titans to testosterone, they mean business, and consistently take it out on Ren and Stimpy. Kricfalusi has said in interviews that he bears frightening childhood memories of his father, and that paternal panic is on display in every coarse bearded, hairy-armed man-ape that traipses through a Ren and Stimpy sequence. But there are other items that instill a sense of danger as well. Odd ancillary characters come crawling out of the woodwork in certain shows (Grandpa/Old Man Hunger for one) to bring their own secret serial killer shame to the proceedings. And whenever they can heighten a dimension of disease or disgust, the animators respond with absolute repugnance. It's this juxtaposition between the weird and the wicked, the pus and the pun, the comical with the craven that gives Ren and Stimpy its spunk. It's what makes up the vast majority of its most successful episodes.
Looking over the three discs here, it is nearly impossible to pick out the single best examples of The Ren and Stimpy Show. For every episode offered, there are good and bad aspects. Those individual installments that ride the lunatic lightening better than others are fairly obvious, however. "Nurse Stimpy" lays the foundation for every other gross out cartoon crafted after the series broke big (anyone remember MTV's The Brothers Grunt?) while the sci-fi trilogy "Space Madness", "Marooned" and "Black Hole" make mincemeat out of the entire speculative fiction field. "Sven Hoëk" gives Stimpy a chance to one up another animal as we meet Ren's really dumb cousin, and "Fake Dad" finds a way to be both sentimental and strange at the same time. Even Powdered Toast Man's own solo outing is inventive and irreverent, what with its jabs at the Pope and American democracy. But if you had to pick a few absolute standouts on these discs, the following trio of treats are viable candidates. "Stimpy's Invention" introduces us to Stinky Wizzleteats, folk singer extraordinaire who croons our cartoon cat's favorite song, the uproarious "Happy Happy Joy Joy". Just seeing Ren tortured by Stimpy's Happy Helmet is worth the price of this DVD alone. "Rubber Nipple Salesmen" features everything that makes the show great: highbrow humor, unexpected evil, an excellent combination of cartooning styles and an ending that references a trio of well-known knuckleheads. Besides, any cartoon that introduces us to the game Don't Whiz on the Electric Fence has a great deal going for it. Finally, "The Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen" features a fabulous song (sung to the tune of "My Country 'Tis of Thee") that really propels the action/adventure plotline over the top.
So now we have the first two seasons on DVD. You can now watch all 32 episodes, including a couple of famously "banned" broadcasts (more on those later) and witness the rise, sustained superiority and rapid fall of one of the most original, outrageous missed opportunities in the history of animation. Nickelodeon, and Kricfalusi as well, really dropped the bravery ball when they tried to manage the show's monstrous response. Had they allowed John K. and his team a chance to experiment and fail, had they kept their aesthetic tinkering to themselves – it was never based in creativity, but PC compliance – and let the audience tell them what was and was not acceptable, there is a distinct possibility that the show's alarming extremism would have balanced out. Once it found its proper voice, Ren and Stimpy could have become a legend. Same goes for Kricfalusi's angry artist complex. Had he given up his complete control dreams, and allowed some intelligent and instructive input (if any was available at the time), his bizarro world baby could have conquered the airwaves. It's rare when a singular mindset can successfully control a program (South Park comes to mind, again). More times than not, lasting victory is forged out of compromise and group contributions (look at The Simpsons, for example). One of the reasons why Ren and Stimpy is well remembered, but not bandied about as a milestone, is because of how the ongoing battle between the creator and the cable channel lead to unevenness, censorship and a creeping sense of ennui. The three DVD set of The Ren and Stimpy Show Uncut – The First and Second Seasons is a testament to the struggle within this show to survive and thrive. Fans will find it fascinating while newbies will fidget with frustration.
One last thing - these DVDs are NOT uncut. Having watched Ren and Stimpy when it first appears on cable over 13 years ago, this critic was shocked that at least twice while watching this collection of episodes, the less drug-addled portions of his brain went "Whoa! Hold on a minute. Where was THAT scene?" At first, it occurred during "Big Baby Scam". In the scene, Ren has just successfully "walked" for the Big Unseen Father, and Dad embraces the frail pup along his manly, five o'clock shadow. As he rubs the Chihuahua against his face, we start closing in on the action. The first two shots are there: Ren's head moving against the beard and the closer view of the stubble raking his fur. But the next two shots are missing. Originally we got yet another tight angle on the hug and we could actually see stalks of human facial hair tearing away bits of Ren's skin. There was still another close-up where the flakes are now massive flesh hunks and the whiskers resemble large tree trunks. The other sequence happened while the family was taking a bath. Ren and Stimpy are handed over to "Grandpa" (otherwise known to fans as Old Man Hunger, the weird smiling guy with a chicken leg perched on his head). Grandpa is still glimpsed briefly now, but his spooky, sinister whistling is gone. Originally, Gramps starred at our stars and whistled a weird, wounded classic tune. The camera held on his toothsome grin as he continued to blow. This material is gone, lost to the ages or drifting amongst the debris in either Spumco (Kricfalusi's production company) or Nickelodeon's vaults.
(Turns out, your faithful writer is RIGHT! Apparently, those with far more time on their hands have previewed the DVDs and have found several instances where edits were made. According to various web sources, you can tell when a cut occurs – it happens every time the scene fades out for no real reason, For those who are interested in more details on this issue, your answers are just a Goggle search away. It confirms that there are edits aplenty, including those mentioned above from the "Big Baby Scam" sequence. Other obvious missing footage includes the 'Bloody Head Fairy' from "Haunted House" and some additional decay drama from "Ren's Toothache", just to name a few).
Having gone through a complete remaster and clean up, the individual episodes of The Ren and Stimpy Show look amazing. The colors are psychedelic and resplendent and the balance is excellently maintained so as to avoid any flaring and/or bleeding concerns. The contrast is so clear you can see the cell shades shift during certain sequences. Even the purposely-placed dust and dirt utilized to give the cartoons that contemporary/aged feeling look great. On Disc 1, there are a couple of brief moments where pixels appear and the image goes digitally daffy (mostly toward the end of "Untamed World") but the vast majority of the transfer is flawless. The issue of the missing footage aside, the DVD presentation of The Ren and Stimpy Show is light years above other animated releases. John K. and his crew have done a wonderful job with these episodes, retaining the artistic merit of the show while bringing it directly into the 21st Century.
Though it is only offered in Dolby Digital Stereo, the 2.0 here is very crisp and highly atmospheric. The Ren and Stimpy Show is one of the few examples of modern cartoon creation that utilized classical music, in all its bombastic mood management, to sell the sentiment in a scene. From the spooky "Night on Bald Mountain" to the joyful sprite spirit of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, the soundscape backing the bizarreness really accentuates the series. As for the other aural aspects, all the dialogue is upfront and prominent, with the levels of the whispers to the screams maintained perfectly. From the singular strum of Stinky Wizzleteats' guitar to the patented crack of Ren's bulging eyeballs, the audio elements of The Ren and Stimpy Show DVD are sensational.
Okay, now we get into a big gray area. There are, indeed, a few episodes of The Ren and Stimpy Show that are presented here in an "uncut" form. The definition of that term is kind of strained, since aside from these few examples, the vast majority of the episodes feature syndication and content edits. And yet, Kricfalusi and company have gone so far as to reinsert VHS quality time-coded footage into "Sven Hoëk". Along with the complete "Big House Blues", and the addition of the George Liquor themed "banned" installments ("Dog Show" and "Man's Best Friend"), it is hard to understand just what material is out and what is in. The aforementioned are the most blatantly obvious examples and, frankly, it's unfathomable why these shows were censored in the first place. The George Liquor skits contain about 1/8th the controversy as an episode like "The Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen" offers ("Yaksmen" can show stool creeping out of a flung intestine, but Liquor can't yell and scream at our cartoon cat and dog?) and none of the "Big House" horrors are all that child changing (like kids have never seen animated animals kiss before?). Indeed, in light of our modern mindset, the censoring of Ren and Stimpy seems silly. Sadly, this DVD release doesn't do much to either support or spit on such an ideal.
The rest of the actual bonus material is divided up over all three discs. On Disc 1, we are treated to a nice documentary about the origins of the show called "Ren and Stimpy: In the Beginning". Featuring John K. and Eddie Fitzgerald, this featurette walks us through the history and development of the characters and the series. It goes without saying that Kricfalusi looks the part of the demented, arrested adolescent genius. With his grade school haircut and horn-rimmed glasses, he's an evil prankster just waiting to cause trouble. In addition, we are treated to two commentary tracks. One for "Untamed World" and the other on "Stimpy's Invention". Kricfalusi makes an appearance during "Invention" and he's fired up and ready to retort. As will be the case throughout all the other commentaries, when John K. is involved, the vitriol will flow with ferocity. He loves taking Nickelodeon to task, relishing the chance to point out their blunders. The "Untamed" track is fun, but not as furious.
Disc 2 has many "making of" features, like pencil tests, storyboards and image galleries. It is also on this disc where you will find the "banned" episode "Man's Best Friend" and the full-length version of "Big House Blues". Finally there are two commentary tracks (for "Rubber Nipple Salesmen" and "Sven Hoëk") that replicate a lot of the complaints and fond memories, from the discussion on Disc 1. Finally Disc 3 contains our last alternate narrative tracks (for "Powdered Toast Man" and "Son of Stimpy"/ "Stimpy's First Fart" and they are just as dynamic and deranged as previous presentations. While it would have been helpful to get a little insight into Nick's position in this entire mess, and a bit of filmography information would have allowed the series a small amount of perspective (according to research information, the episodes here are NOT presented in the order in which they were shown) this is a bountiful box set. Paramount is not known for their added content concerns, so all the extras here are icing on what is a decent, in-depth DVD presentation.
There's The Simpsons. Then South Park. Some sing the praises of King of the Hill (or its corrupt cousin, Beavis and Butthead), while others go goofy for Family Guy. Yet when the list of classic animated series is compiled, it seems like The Ren and Stimpy Show no longer gets the rousing respect it once owned outright. During it's heyday, it was heralded and hated, praised as genius and degraded as trash. Now, it's just a semi-affectionate memory, a missive that seemed to never quite live up to its potential. Thankfully, Kricfalusi is back on board trying to salvage Ren and Stimpy's reputation. The Ren and Stimpy Show Uncut – The First and Second Season goes a long way in rebuilding the cartoon's importance and status. While it's far from perfect, and we may never see the show the way is was intended, the 32 episodes here truly represent a singular vision of animated bedlam – the warped imagination of a genuinely gifted and goofy guy making cartoons his way. All glorious grotesqueness and supersonic surreality aside, The Ren and Stimpy Show is perhaps the best example of unhinged pen and ink pandemonium ever created. It's just too bad that its inventor and its benefactor couldn't see eye to eye. Thanks to Nickelodeon's narrow mindedness and Kricfalusi's stubborn individualism, the series place in the pantheon of pictograms is uncertain. The reason the series lingers in the mind of the fans is because of its overwhelming originality. Yet it's that staunch strangeness that provided the series' fatal flaw. It's hard to get a handle on something that constantly subverts the familiar rules. And Ren and Stimpy really screwed with the standards. The Ren and Stimpy Show was animation pushing the envelope paving the way for others to surpass it and excel. It's just too bad it got lost in the shuffle.
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