Top Cartoons: Stimpy’s Invention

Anyone who watched The Ren & Stimpy Show remembers Stimpy’s Invention. While I think Man’s Best Friend is a superior R&S episode, the sheer madness in the second half of Stimpy’s Invention makes it a top cartoon.

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Even the title card is awesome. Set to Dvorak’s New World Symphony, it sets the uneasy tone for what’s to come.

Unfortunately, this episode doesn’t get off to the best start. Stimpy asks Ren to test out his silly and useless “invinshins,” which sets in motion a series of weak gags that are only funny because of the excellent voice acting. Safe though they are, I think these scenes serve their purpose in providing characterization, as well as setting up contrast.

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After this, we get a long, long, long sequence of Stimpy at work in his laboratory. There are couple of funny shots, but overall this feels like padding. Once Stimpy yells “Eureka!” however, the cartoon takes flight and never touches the ground again.

Stimpy’s newest invention is the Happy Helmet, a mood-altering abomination that forces its wearer to feel elated all the time. Stimpy ambushes Ren with this device, and a freaky transformation follows (brilliantly set to The Flight of the Bumblebee). The poses and animation here are tremendous, unlike anything seen in most cartoons. Ren goes so far off-model that most square studios would never allow it. Thankfully, Spumco is no square studio. Laying out this cartoon must have been a hell of a lot of fun.stimpys-invention-mkv_snapshot_07-25_2014-02-16_01-45-17.png

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Having turned into a mindlessly cheerful drone, Ren goes on to perform “wonderful things” for Stimpy, like ironing the cat’s underwear and cleaning his litter box, and the parade of astonishing poses continues. I mean, just look at this! Nobody does stuff like this. There’s no way Disney would ever contort its precious characters in this way, and even Warner Bros. never took things to these extremes.

Finger_in_kitty_litter.pngren ironingren cat boxThe climax of Stimpy’s Invention is, as most know, the haunting musical number of Stinky Wizzleteats’s “Happy Happy Joy Joy.” This scene is pretty much indescribable. Ren & Stimpy cavort to this bizarre children’s ditty, performed by John Kricfalusi himself in a weird homage to Burl Ives. As the song hits its crescendo, Ren rediscovers his willpower and frees himself from the Happy Helmet by smashing himself on the head with a ball-peen hammer. It all happens in time with the song, too. It’s amazing.

Here’s something strange: when I first saw this as an eleven-year-old, and the spotlights fell on the characters, I somehow knew that I was about to see something that wasn’t just special, but historic.

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It is here that John Kricfalusi first demonstrated to the world that mixture of disturbing and funny that would be the hallmark of his work ever after. Many cartoons — including Billy & Mandy, The Brothers Grunt, Spongebob Squarepants, and Adventure Time — have attempted to recapture this sinister-yet-silly tone that’s so well encapsulated in Stimpy’s Invention, but none has succeeded. Some of the shows on Adult Swim come close, but I’m not sure they count since, well, they’re not aimed at children, and thus, have no lines to toe. What Ren & Stimpy got away with blows the mind, as well as the doors for all outrageous cartoons that followed.

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Top Cartoons: Man’s Best Friend

The Ren & Stimpy Show built its success on its disturbing scenarios and unique direction, so imagine my curiosity when I learned that Nickelodeon banned one of its episodes for “excessive violence.” I just had to see this sucker for myself.

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John Kricfalusi, who directed and co-wrote this cartoon, says it was one of the reasons that Nickelodeon fired him. Without his influence, the Ren & Stimpy Show would go on to slowly disintegrate. Is Man’s Best Friend really that bad? Even for its time (1992), I don’t believe it was.

It stars the terrifying George Liquor (American), who is voiced by the late Michael Pataki. Liquor is a ferociously conservative man ever lost in the fabled glory days of the 40s and 50s. To him, a man is no man without discipline, and when he adopts Ren and Stimpy from the local pet shop, he quickly puts them through a strenuous — and bizarre — training regimen.4073630_l3

My favorite scene is when Liquor teaches his pets to stay off of his couch. “In order to learn discipline,” he says, “you must learn to misbehave.” He frightens the poor animals by telling them that he hates it when his “lower life-forms” sit on his “non-living possessions.” Then, in the next instant, he tells them to do just that!

Confused and afraid, Ren and Stimpy cling to each other desperately, while Liquor commands them to break his rules. Meanwhile, this intense production music is pounding away in the background. I love this music, and I want it. If anyone, anyone knows what this musical theme is called, please tell me. I really want to know.

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The cartoon hits a climax when Liquor dons a ridiculously huge bite suit and orders Stimpy to attack him. Stimpy won’t comply, however, as he cannot bring himself to harm his master. Ren, on the other hand, is thrilled at this opportunity, and he proceeds to whale on Liquor with his “Prize Bludgeoning Oar.”

This is the violent scene that Nickelodeon objected to, but it’s far from uncomfortable. In fact, it’s quite cathartic to see the put-upon chihuahua take revenge on Liquor. There are a couple of graphic shots, but they’re hilariously over-the-top, and most of the beating takes place offscreen. In other words, it’s no worse than anything else the show got away with, so the banning leaves me scratching my head.

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Now, if the network had complained about the undertones of this cartoon, I’d be a little more understanding. Man’s Best Friend is, on paper, a story about child abuse. Liquor’s mixed-up lessons and harsh treatment are tantamount to psychological torture, but in animating this material, Kricfalusi manages to make it funny. Typical gags are forgone, replaced with shockingly tense and wild scenes that viewers can only respond to by laughing. I consider Man’s Best Friend a masterwork, a perfect expression of John K.’s one-of-a-kind style, made legendary by its “too hot for TV” status. He’s never topped it, but I don’t think he really needs to.

Not-so-Top Cartoons: Boo Boo Runs Wild

 

John Kricfalusi is one of my idols. His famous Ren & Stimpy Show was a creative revolution in cartoons. Not only was the animation top-notch, the material was both edgy and over-the-edge at the same time. I can’t believe how much he got away with back in 1991.

Kricfalusi’s style is one-of-a-kind: his timing is a little more plodding than that of most directors. His beats flow slowly, and they give his cartoons an awkward, unsettling rhythm, like a song with an uncommon meter. The humor in his work isn’t built on traditional setup/punchline gags, but on outrageous takes, extreme (and usually gruesome) close-ups, and uncomfortable, high-pressure scenarios. When you laugh at a John K. cartoon, you laugh because you can’t believe what these cartoon characters are actually doing.

With Boo Boo Runs Wild, Kricfalusi delivers his vision of a Yogi Bear cartoon (though he calls it a “Ranger Smith Cartoon”). As expected, it’s odd, vivid, and pretty gross. When Ranger Smith’s myriad of rules separate Boo Boo from his favorite bear-type activities, the little guy snaps. He decides to forgo his anthropomorphism in favor of true bear behavior, which includes growling, loping on all fours, tearing at tree bark, and drooling all over everything. Yogi doesn’t understand Boo Boo’s rebellion, but Yogi’s girlfriend Cindy finds it quite attractive, and joins in the devolution.

It’s a pretty good premise, and I love the old-school backgrounds and classic Hanna-Barbera theme music. I also love Kricfalusi’s voice acting as Boo Boo, but I have to say this isn’t the man’s best work as a director. It drags on too long. There are too many scenes of too little value, which I would call “filler” if the animation wasn’t so good. You can only watch Boo Boo and Cindy growling and tonguing each other for so long before you say, “Okay, I get it already.”

So why am I writing about it here? Well, the climax of the cartoon is a surprisingly dramatic fistfight between Yogi and Smith, and it’s just gorgeously animated. The mixture of exaggerated MMA moves with silly, stock cartoon sound effects is brilliant. I also love the choice of background music, though I have no idea what it’s called (if anyone knows, please tell me). Sadly, when the episode aired on television, the fight scene was truncated for some reason. So, I’ve included a clip of the complete fight for you to enjoy.

 

What is the name of that production music?! I want it. Anyway, I still have great affection for Mr. Kricfalusi’s animation, so you should expect to see more of it here, and presented more positively.