Many of the greatest ideas in history have sprung from very simple beginnings. This holds true in the world of entertainment. For example, for years people have yelled at the screen while watching movies -- especially if the movie is bad. And then a group of guys in Minnesota decided that they could make a TV show with this concept and Mystery Science Theater 3000 was born. Similarly, many people have done inappropriate things with doll and action figures...although most probably wouldn't admit it. Actor Seth Green has apparently done many weird things with dolls, as his Cartoon Network show Robot Chicken may be one of the most twisted (and short) shows ever put on TV. And it's now available on DVD.
Robot Chicken is a show which is incredibly simplistic, yet very hard to describe. The show is simply a series of brief segments and shorts which spoof popular culture, from TV to movies to animation. The gimmick is that it's all done with action figures, dolls, toys, and puppets. Well, I guess that wasn't so hard to describe after all. The point which can be hard to get across is just how weird and off-the-wall that Robot Chicken is. Working with puppets and toys, Green and company don't face many restraints, therefore they can take many of their ideas beyond their logical conclusion and introduce ideas that make the word "taboo" seem tame. The show is made up of some long (several minutes) segments and others which last only seconds. The show is made to appear as if the viewer is changing channels, so some of the gags just fly by.
Each episode of the show lasts only about 11 minutes, but they are so chock full of segments that a comprehensive cataloging of the shorts from Season One would be a daunting task (not to mention the fact that it might crash the server). But, it's certainly worthwhile to mention some of the more memorable moments from the show, such as when the Scooby-Doo gang visits Camp Crystal Lake. Or how about the series of violent murders which are occurring in Smurf Village? I also liked the race between some of the most famous cars from pop culture, and the segment in which Skeletor and Cobra Commander carpool. If these ideas seem somewhat pedestrian, then we have true classics, such as the Robot Chicken salute to twist ending, including not only Sleepaway Camp, but a salute to the fact that someone actually remembered Sleepaway Camp. The show's high point may be it's twisted take on the beloved Charlie Brown cartoons. (Some may wonder why I didn't list "Kill Bunny". Sorry, that segment did nothing for me. As we'll soon see, they can't all be winners.)
When Robot Chicken is on a roll, it can be incredibly funny. The show automatically gets points, as the basic concept is quite amusing. The use of familiar toys and the lampooning of recognizable celebrities make the show accessible...to an extent. And the animation itself is often amusing. But, it's clearly the writing which makes the show click. There are many clever moments in the show. Some of the best come in the quick "channel flips" spots where one joke is quickly thrown at the audience. One such joke, featuring two camels who have just left a strip club, exemplifies the kind of quick wit which can elevate the show. Then there are sketches, such as the Charlie Brown spoof, which rely on the audience being familiar with the target. These offer very funny payoffs. (The ending the Charlie Brown segment is brilliant and demonstrates the nerdish devotion to the source material that the people behind Robot Chicken have.)
The one drawback to Robot Chicken is that it's incredibly hit-or-miss. As with a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker film, the show pummels the viewer with gags, but only about half of them are funny. And those which aren't funny often aren't even "cute" -- they are REALLY not funny. As noted above, the classic segments of the show are truly hilarious, but the stinkers really fall flat. (Leading me to believe that some of the jokes are just for the Robot Chicken staff.) While it doesn't all work, the funny certainly outweighs the painful and the show will have more of an appeal to those who have a working knowledge of TV, films, and comic books, and especially those who grew up in the 70s and will recognize many of the vintage toys used on the show.
Robot Chicken clucks onto DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video. This two-disc set contains all twenty episodes from the show's first season. The shows are all presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image is fairly sharp and clear, as there is very little to no grain on the image and no defects from the source material. The colors look very good, as the show is filled with pastels and primary colors. The only real deficit to the transfer is that the digital transfer really reveals the many subtle mistakes in the stop-motion animation. Otherwise, the picture looks good and there is essentially no video noise or artifacting here.
The Robot Chicken DVDs contain a Dolby Surround 2.0 audio track. This track provides clear dialogue and music reproduction with no hissing or distortion. I noticed some nice stereo effects on the track, but the surround effects are a bit too subtle and don't offer much of an impact. Bass effects are present, but minimal as well.
The Special Features are plentiful on this 2-disc set. Each episode is accompanied by an audio commentary, all of which feature series co-creator/co-producer Seth Green along with a host of guests which represent the writers, animators, and voice actors. These commentaries are entertaining, as it's clear that Green and his cohorts get a real kick out of making the show. They prove that they are serious about their craft, as they critique the episodes, but they also poke fun at their creation as well. Disc 1 has a "Deleted Scenes" section which features 10 scenes along with a section of "Channel Flips". This feature has a PLAY ALL option and runs about 18 minutes total. The "Deleted Scenes" have an hilarious introduction from Green and co-creator Matt Senreich. Most of the scenes are actually extended segments of existing scenes, save for the all new "Citizen Spears" to which I comment, "Can you really say that on TV?" There are also 19 "Deleted Animatics" (19 minutes with PLAY ALL option), which offer storyboard-like drawing inserted into existing segments. A "Photo Gallery" is present which features captions for the photos (this is a very nice touch). The "Animation Meetings" offer a picture-in-picture view as we see the finished product on one side and Green pitching the idea on the other. We really see Green's enthusiasm for the show in the 7 sections (14 minutes) offered here.
Disc 2 is kicked off by "Sweet J Presents", where we learn that Robot Chicken's origins lie in a series of segments done for a Sony website. Here, Green & co. talk about that experience while showing a series of clips in three categories, "Movie Previews", "The Pitch", and "TV Previews". "Behind the Scenes" (12 minutes) give us a look inside the Robot Chicken studios as we see how the animation is done and get a glimpse of various actors recording their lines. "Wire Comparisons" (5 minutes) offers side-by-side comparisons of shots with and without finished effects. A similar feature can be found in "Animatic to Episode Comparisons" (5 minutes). "Alternate Audio Tracks" are essentially adlibs and audio bloopers. The extras are rounded out by 12 "Promos" and 10 minutes of "Bumps" from Adult Swim.
The Adult Swim line-up on Cartoon Network has offered some of the most original, bizarre, and genuinely disturbing programming ever offered on TV. And Robot Chicken truly fits into that frame of mind. The show's use of dolls and action figures to act out perverse and twisted comedy will surely offend some, but those with open (read: warped) minds will find most of the show very funny.