"Not recommended for small children or big babies."
It's certainly not the first "kid's show" with a dark, sinister undercurrent, but Happy Tree Friends raises cute, fuzzy animal gore to new and exciting heights. Created by Kenn Navarro, Aubrey Ankrum, Rhode Montijo and Warren Graff, this formulaic Flash festival of ferocity lies somewhere between Teletubbies and Itchy & Scratchy (in gaming terms, think Paper Mario meets Conker's Bad Fur Day). Happy Tree Friends is blessed with a simple premise, which involves a random assortment of cute, slightly anthropomorphized animals gradually killed off in brutal, imaginative ways. The deceptively adorable animation style resembles a children's pop-up book, at least until one of the critters get disemboweled.
As if it weren't painfully obvious by now, Happy Tree Friends is virtually an anti-cartoon as far as mortality goes: characters don't turn into accordions when a rock falls on them, they get squished. Exposure to fire doesn't make characters look dirty, it melts flesh. Brain matter flows almost as freely as blood. When a character dies, they stay dead...at least until the next episode, which acts as a perennial reset button. We can't blame the creators, though: if every character actually died, they'd have to create hundreds of new ones every season.
It's all in good fun, unless you're one of those snobby types that don't enjoy such over-the-top tomfoolery. For this reason, Happy Tree Friends is perfect for those cursed with a sick sense of humor (and, of course, the friends of said sickos), but it certainly works best in small doses. Whether you've seen and enjoyed Happy Tree Friends since the very beginning or this is your first exposure, the series' flippant lack of continuity makes it easy to jump right into. The franchise may always stick to the same formula and never reach higher...but for now, it's still pretty darn watchable.
Though its most comfortable home has always been the official website, Happy Tree Friends has subsequently made its way to television during the past few years. The earlier web-based shorts (most of which were less than 3 minutes long) began airing on G4's Attack of the Show in June of 2005, paving the way for subsequent DVD collections soon after. Eventually, a 30-minute ongoing series---which introduced longer, seven-minute shorts to unsuspecting audiences---was developed for G4 and debuted in October of 2006. More than likely, a few parents complained at some point.
The first season of Happy Tree Friends has been divided in half for DVD consumption; the first volume, released in December of 2006, contains nine seven-minute shorts and a handful of related bonus features. This second volume follows roughly the same formula, though it's odd that a more complete two-disc set couldn't have butchered two birds with one machete. In any case, an episode listing for this one-disc set has been included below.
(Nine violent shorts on one single-sided disc)
"Easy for You to Sleigh"
"Who's to Flame?"
"Ever Litter Bit Hurts"
"As You Wish!"
"Take a Hike"
"Snow Place to Go"
"Dunce Upon a Time"
"Gem's the Breaks"
All things considered, if you enjoyed previous installments of Happy Tree Friends and you're eager to see more, there's no reason why you shouldn't enjoy this one. Our friends are introduced to new and exciting environments and scenarios (usually given away by the episode titles), but you can rest easy knowing that death and dismemberment still abound. Once again, Giggles, Cuddles, Lumpy and the gang are put through the wringer, suffering through raging fires, frozen landscapes, a lowbrow re-telling of "Jack and the Beanstalk" and more. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, these digitally-created shorts look terrific from start to finish. Colors are bold and bright, detail is superior and black levels are rock solid. No major digital problems---including edge enhancement and pixellation---were spotted along the way, ensuring a pixel-perfect presentation. The Dolby Digital Surround mix also gets the job done, offering clear sound effects and subtle channel separation...and, surprisingly enough, occasional subwoofer action. Since Happy Tree Friends is virtually dialogue-free, no subtitles or Closed Captions are necessary.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen below, the plain-wrap menu designs are basic and easy to navigate. Each seven-minute short has been presented without chapter stops (though the handy "Play All" option allows viewers to skip around at will), while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This one-disc release is housed in a white digipak case; a G-rated slipcover and two-sided chapter insert are also included.
Presented in "Play All" format, the main attraction here is another collection of Audio Commentaries for each episode; participants include director / co-creator Kenn Navarro, producer Dave Ichioka, writer Warren Graff and writer / story editor Ken Pontac. These are obviously very informal sessions, with each creative minds sharing production stories and the like---and though a good amount of time is spent laughing at their own jokes, these tracks are entertaining and worth a listen. Since the entire batch of episodes runs just over an hour, these commentaries don't drag on too long.
Aside from a collection of Storyboards for each of the nine episodes, the remainder of the bonus features are limited to a series of short featurettes. Presented in 1.33:1, these extremely casual interviews are listed below.
"Writing for Television" (4:30) discusses Happy Tree Friends' evolution from minute-long shorts to a longer, seven-minute televised format. Though it often involves nothing more than additional gross-out gags this also allows more room for subtle character details and more direct running jokes.
"The Classics" (3:51) provides a brief history of violent cartoons, from Looney Toons (specifically, Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner) to Popeye and several others; obviously, Happy Tree Friends has helped to raise the bar somewhat, but the main difference is its lack of animation's traditional "blood-free violence".
"Pontac on Pontac" (4:21) takes a closer look at the writer and story editor, who discusses his early involvement with the series and mentions some of his proudest moments. He also briefly discusses the evolution of certain ideas from his initial concept to the finished product. There's a modest amount of overlap with the audio commentaries (as with several of the other featurettes), but this enjoyable interview is definitely worth a look.
Finally, "All Up In My Grill" (1:19) is a dialogue-free montage of an unknown assailant literally grilling a Lumpy plush to charred perfection. Who doesn't love outdoor cooking?
Even at slightly longer episode lengths, the first season of Happy Tree Friends has stayed true to its violent, hyperactive source material. It's obvious that this sick, repulsive animated series isn't for all tastes...but if you have a twisted sense of humor, it's certainly worth checking out. This one-disc DVD package contains the second half of the first season, herding together nine more shorts and another helping of tasty, nugget-sized bonus features (and the technical presentation is great, too!). Casual fans of the series---as well as newcomers, of course---may be satisfied with a rental, but there's certainly enough here to make Happy Tree Friends: Season One, Vol. 2 worth a purchase. Recommended.
Other Links of Interest: Other Happy Tree Friends DVD reviews
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.