Although I had heard about it before, the latest disc from BCI and Mondo Mini Shows, Happy Tree Friends: Season One TV, Volume 3 was my first exposure to this repulsive, disgusting, degenerate and utterly hilarious cartoon series. When my kids saw the cover (which looks deceptively safe), they immediately clamored to watch it; thank god I didn't let them (although I suspect they'd laugh at it the same way they laugh at Itchy and Scratchy on The Simpsons). These sick and twisted gore-fest takes on the hearts and bunnies genre of kiddie cartoons (think The Care Bears or My Little Pony) had me laughing out loud from start to finish. Incredibly inventive in their psychosis, the team behind these amoral animated slasher toons achieve a kind of dark, homicidal netherworld in the systematic slaughter of their cute-as-a-button little creatures, that had me convulsed with sick laughter.
The premise is deceptively simple. Within each little seven minute cartoon, adorable, cut-out shaped creatures such as Cuddles the cottontail bunny, or Handy the beaver, or Lumpy the Moose, go about their anthropomorphisized lives until Fate, which could come in the form of one of their daily routines gone horribly wrong or even worse, right out of the blue, delivers perversely grotesque tortures and dismemberments to one and all - in close up, and in minute, appalling detail. Game over for our snugly little friends. Death and perfidy reign supreme.
If the Happy Tree Friends were about nothing more than showing the myriad ways flesh can be mutilated and rendered apart, it would still be a hell of a funny show. Let's face it: pain is an essential part of even the most elemental comedy. Watching some guy in the street really get his top plate creased isn't funny, but put it in a movie, and it's a guarantee laugh-getter. That's why any controversy that came about when Happy Tree Friends first came out is rather silly. After all, it isn't meant for children (and my generation watched a lot of The Three Stooges' eye-gougings and hammers-to-the-head growing up), and it's so obviously outrageous and over-emphasized, how could anyone be offended by it? No, the ingenious methods of stomach-churning vivisection inflicted on the Happy Tree Friends is valid - and hilarious - in its own small right.
What makes Happy Tree Friends truly brilliant is the almost invisible subtle contexts that inform the shorts, along with the overriding sense of fatality and doom that permeate these waking nightmares. While many people have noted the funny little morals that ironically end each short, the characters often bring about their own punishment through their own weaknesses and vices. Recognizably human faults such as eating the wrong foods (A Change of Heart), or not watching your children closely enough (A Hole Lotta Love), or gluttony for sweets (Chew Said a Mouthful), bring on the most horrendously vile punishments, totally outsized and inappropriate for these minor sins committed by the Friends.
And that outsized punishment, that overwhelming, crushing totality ending in not just death, but in gruesome dismemberment, plays perfectly into the subtext of Fate that permeates every short. Fate is a bitch, according to the Happy Tree Friends. Fate will screw you over every single time, whether you're trying over and over again to fix a wrong that can't be righted (Blast From the Past), to committing the simple act of walking down the street, minding your own business (See What Develops). As useless as their efforts are to either enjoy themselves innocently in their lives, or to feed their unhealthy desires, Fate will deal with all equally, by crushing these cute little animals into pulp. It's an overwhelmingly pessimistic viewpoint, once you catch your breath from laughing yourself sick. The little creatures of Happy Tree Friends are, in the scheme of things, nothing more than Fate's little meat puppets, there to be torn, broken, gouged, sliced, diced, exploded, pounded, pummeled and finally squished, with no logic, no reason, no consequence, and no sympathy. And that's what makes Happy Tree Friends: Season One TV, Volume 3 first so sickeningly funny and lastly, so eerily disquieting.
Here are the 9, seven-minute episodes included in Happy Tree Friends: Season One TV, Volume 3 :
A Change of Heart
Starring: Lumpy and Disco Bear.
Disco Bear needs a transplant, but Doctor Lumpy has trouble finding a donor.
A Hole Lotta Love
Starring: Sniffles and Pop & Cub.
When Cub tumbles into a well, Sniffles builds a burrowing machine to rescue him.
Mime to Five
Mime works a series of very odd jobs to get money for a new unicycle.
Blast From the Past
Sniffles builds a time machine to fix the past and creates a deadly future.
Chew Said a Mouthful
Starring: Nutty and Lumpy.
Nutty's new jawbreaker lives up to its name!
See What Develops
Starring: Splendid and The Mole.
Editor Lumpy sends Mole out to get the front page photo he needs.
Indiana Sniffles discovers the Idol, and is chased by evil fortune and an angry crack.
Home is Where the Hurt Is
Starring: Handy and Giggles.
Lumpy messes up the blueprints for Giggles' new home, turning it into a death-house.
Farmer Lumpy battles a hungry crow as he grows a giant ear of corn for the fair.
The full frame video image for these digitally produced shorts is nothing short of pristine. Absolutely no compression issues, with bold, primary colors and excellent values. Blacks are absolute.
The Dolby Digital Surround mix is excellent, with nice speaker action during the mayhem (listen to body parts fly across your room). The Happy Tree Friends' garbled English comes across clearly.
There's a running commentary track for all the nine shorts here, featuring Kenn Navarro, David Ichioka, and Ken Pontac. Next, there are full animated storyboards for all nine shorts. Next, we have an informative seven minute look at the voice talents behind Happy Tree Friends, called Voices of Doom. Finally, we have Previously On..., which acts like a highlight reels of some of the most sick deaths in the series.
Like a Kafkaesque nightmare done up in bright pinks and yellows and blues, and filtered through the sensibilities of The Care Bears, Happy Tree Friends: Season One TV, Volume 3 offers vile, stomach-turning gore galore as the little fuzzy cutie-pies are butchered and squished with total abandon - and with total disinterest by Fate's indifferent hand. Brilliant, hysterical, and ultimately disturbing, I highly recommend Happy Tree Friends: Season One TV, Volume 3.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.