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The Ren & Stimpy Show: The Complete First & Second Seasons: Uncut

Paramount Home Video

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

John Kricfalusi, a journeyman animator working for Filmation on cartoons like the updated Beany & Cecil and Mighty Mouse, had a dream of producing his own series with his own twisted characters. His creations were mostly for the benefit of his equally jaded co-workers until 1989, when John K. (as he's commonly known) and co-creator Bob Camp made a short titled "Big House Blues" starring a dopey feline named Stimpson J. Cat and an angry "asthma-hound Chihuahua" named Ren Hoëk. Despite being far more adult — and far more potentially offensive — than standard TV kid's fare of the time, Viacom's Nickelodeon network picked up the show, requesting more episodes for the 1991 season. Kricfalusi and Camp called their new production company "Spümcø" and history was born, with the success of The Ren & Stimpy Show (and the enormous amount of money Nick made in licensed merchandise) making the show second only to The Simpsons in influencing the 1990's renaissance in creator-led, adult-friendly animation.

Despite becoming a runaway hit, the collaboration between John K. and Nickelodeon was a stormy one, with the network making continual demands that Spümcø tone down the racy material and John K.'s perfectionist bent running the company over budget and past deadlines. The final straw was, reportedly, the creation of the character George Liquor, American — deemed too adult by the network (one episode featuring Liquor, "Man's Best Friend," was aired just once and never shown on-air again because Nickelodeon executives hated it so much), fed-up Nickelodeon producers finally took Ren and Stimpy away from its creator, firing Spümcø and Kricfalusi after Season Two while retaining Camp and voice artist Billy West. The show was never as good after Kricfalusi left, and it limped along inconsistently for a three more seasons before Nick canceled it. The first and second, Kricfalusi-led seasons have now been brought to DVD (perhaps inspired by the show's recent resurgence in popularity thanks to reruns on Spike TV), and fans can now own all the best Ren & Stimpy episodes in their digitally remastered glory.

Choosing a handful of "best" episodes is difficult — highlights include the sci-fi parodies "Marooned" and "Space Madness"; the "Wild Kingdom" homage "Untamed World," with host Marlon Hoëk sharing some truly disturbing Galapagos Island nature footage; "Stimpy's Invention," an episode almost axed by Nickelodeon in which we first hear the dastardly catchy "Happy Happy Joy Joy" song (fun fact: the psychotic rant by the Burl Ives-esque singer Stinky Wizzleteats is actually dialogue spoken by Ives in the film The Big Country); "Rubber Nipple Salesmen," wherein Ren and Stimpy encounter the latex-fetishist Mr. Horse (brandishing a captive walrus who whispers, "Call… the police…"); and "Powdered Toast Man," which features Gary Owens as the hero and Frank Zappa as the Pope (Kricfalusi offered Zappa the part after discovering that the musician was a fan of the series.) Thankfully included as well is "Man's Best Friend," that famous "banned" episode that was deemed by the Nick execs to be too weird, creepy, and violent to ever show again after the first airing. It's the story of Ren and Stimpy's adoption from a pet store by the freakish George Liquor, who dons an Army uniform to forcibly paper-train Ren (while Stimpy has to merely read the paper to evacuate loudly), then demands that the pair make him angry by getting up on his couch so that he can scream at them — because "it's discipline that begets love." Eventually Ren lashes out, giving Liquor an extended, creative, gleeful beating with a boat oar. Hilarious and appalling, it's an awe-inspiring piece of craftsmanship with some of Spümcø's best art on display accompanied by music from the great Raymond Scott.

It's worth noting that these are advertised as the "uncut" versions of the cartoons, but exactly how uncut is questionable. In "Sven Hoëk," for example, a cartoon that Nickelodeon took away from Spümcø and finished themselves, a scene with Ren's cousin Sven and Stimpy playing "circus" in a litter box was cut by Nick because of Stimpy's line "…and I'm a sword swallower!" followed by off-screen swallowing and giggling sounds. The scene has been replaced on the DVD — but John K. says in the commentary that there's still "some stuff missing here." Eagle-eyed, obsessive fans of the show who saw early copies of the discs angrily complained that there are still a number of scenes, bits of dialogue, etc., missing from the original broadcast versions of several episodes. Kricfalusi addressed the issue on a fan group's message board, writing, "Blame Nickelodeon years ago! Don't blame the producers of the DVD. We put back every scene that I was aware was missing. Nick must have cut more scenes out long after I stopped watching the show… If every show is not completely intact it's because long ago Nick misplaced or lost the originals, but I restored the ones I knew had cuts, okay?" Well… okay.

Paramount Home Video's DVD release of The Ren & Stimpy Show: The Complete First & Second Seasons: Uncut offers the first two seasons — 33 episodes in all — on three discs. All are digitally remastered, although they still show weaknesses in the source prints; the show was occasionally rather slapdash in its production values, with some scenes showing scratches and dust (as they did when originally aired), with foreground characters occasionally even out of focus for a few seconds. There's more consistency in the later episodes, but overall the colors are screamingly bright and the full-screen transfers (1.33:1) are very, very good. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (English only, no subtitles) is excellent — sound effects and music are a big part of the fun here, and this is a fine, detailed sound mix.

Extras on Disc One include "Ren & Stimpy: In the Beginning" (11 min.) with John Kricfalusi — supported by layout/storyboard artist Eddie Fitzgerald — discussing the origins of the cartoon, explaining that Stimpy was based on a "retarded cat character" who was, in turn, inspired by a feline in a '40s-era Bob Clampett short, while Ren came from a photograph John K. discovered of a nasty-looking Chihuahua wearing a sweater. It's a delightful visit with the animator, who's quite open about the process of creating the drawings, the voices, and the stories for his signature show, although he fails to address his famously contentious relationship with Nickelodeon. There's audio commentary by Spümcø artists Jim Smith, Eddie Fitzgerald, and Vincent Waller on the Wild Kingdom parody "Untamed World," and John K. with unidentified personnel of "Stimpy's Invention" — the first cartoon that missed deadline at Nickelodeon, according to John K., because the network originally rejected it as being "too scary for children." However, the creators note that after it proved to one of the most popular episodes, "they asked for more like 'Stimpy's Invention'!"

Disc Two offers a pencil test for the "Sven Hoek" episode (14 minutes), a storyboard-and-still gallery, the "banned" episode "Man's Best Friend", and an uncut version of the pilot episode, "Big House Blues." There's also audio commentary for "Rubber Nipple Salesmen" by John K, Vincent Waller and Richard Purcel, and for "Sven Hoëk" by John K., Eddie Fitzgerald, Jim Smith, and Katy Rice — the latter cartoon was one that Nickelodeon took away from Spümcø and finished, adding a soundtrack and a live-action accordion player during the opening credits; the cartoon's creator says it's "hard for me to watch."

Disc Three just offers a yack-track for "Powdered Toast Man" with John K., Jim Smith, and Richard Purcel, who discuss the writing and direction, and noting that "there's way too many crotch shots in this one"; and commentary on "Son of Stimpy" by Purcel, Waller, Fitzgerald, and Kricfalusi, who discuss the episode, originally titled "Stimpy's First Fart," which was created because the supervising executive at Nickelodeon "wanted some heartwarming stories."

— Dawn Taylor

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