Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Freakazoid!: Season 1
TV on DVD review by Sombrero Grande

Only if you were a fan of the Freakazoid! animated series back when it aired on TV in the mid-'90s would I recommend a purchase of Freakazoid! Season 1 on DVD. And even then, you might want to rent it first just to witness the overarching uneveness you probably don't remember it possessing. Newcomers to the sometimes-amusing wackiness of the series would do well to save their cash and leave the renting to the ultra-curious.

Any kid (or even young adult) growing up in the mid-'90s was surely aware of shows like Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs, and those who avidly watched the shows knew just how uneven they could be. Tuning in on any given weekday afternoon could yield a comedic gem of an episode, such as when a young Plucky Duck went miniature golfing with his dad or when Wakko Warner ran frantically around having a "potty emergency," OR the viewer could be faced with a--shudder--Rita and Runt or Buttons and Mindy episode instead.

Freakazoid! was an animated superhero spoof from the same creators as Tiny Toons and Animaniacs and proved to be the most uneven of of them all. At least with Animaniacs one could tell from the get-go that if it was a Warners or Pinky and the Brain episode it would be worth sticking around for, but with Freakazoid! even the main character's adventures can occasionally fall into the "why the Hell am I watching this?" category. At his worst, the main character of the show comes across as a rip-off of the Genie from Aladdin who's constantly channeling Jerry Lewis.

All too often Freakazoid will "go off" on a mindless streak of yelling for no apparent reason. Apparently someone high up in the crew thought that mere yelling spelled comedic gold. When in doubt, just yell jibberish. That's what the kids want to see.

Mind you, there can be some truly hilarious material to be found in Freakazoid! too; it's just not frequent enough for me to be able to whole-heartedly recommend the show. At its best, Freakazoid! manages to serve as a Saturday morning cartoon equivalent of Monty Python's Flying Circus. The conventions of a superhero animated series are always being toyed with in the most meta of ways. One episode hilariously opens with the President congratulating the titular superhero for another job well done saving the entire free world once again, with Freakazoid turning to the camera to say, "hey kids, sorry you missed it but I got started early today." Often Freakazoid will stop the story cold mid-way through to comment on the script itself or mention how much he enjoys working with his fellow characters on the show or their voice actors. Freakazoid's "Freakmobile" is an hilarious send-up of how children's cartoons are frequently used as commercials themselves, featuring "toyetic" items.

Unfortunately the rest of the material in many of the episodes comes across as filler, sometimes achingly so. Like in Animaniacs, there are many side characters in Freakazoid! that get their own cartoons within the show, and, also like in Animaniacs, many of those are laughless wastes of time. The running joke in the Huntsman cartoons (which all feature the same extra-long opening sequence) is that he never gets to do anything. The Huntsman barges into the city's Police Station ready to be deployed to kick some criminal butt only to find time and time again that he was called to duty on a false alarm. It's a cute idea, but already the second time we see it, especially after his long cartoon introduction, it just becomes bothersome.

Other superheroes who get their own segments during Freakazoid! episodes include: The Lawn Gnomes (a parody of Disney's Gargoyles animated series from in the mid-'90s), Lord Bravery (a snobby British superhero, and one of the few funny secondary superheroes on the show), Toby Danger (a spoof of Johnny Quest that has since been greatly outdone by The Venture Brothers) and the achingly unoriginal and unfunny Fatman and Boy Blubber.

I can only imagine that the entirety of the material Toby Danger spoofed was lost on the kids who initially tuned in to watch Freakazoid! on TV, and in fact it's only a taste of the "outside the target demographic" content referenced in the show. Like Animaniacs, whose segments and references often skewed far older than the supposed audience (such as the "Goodfeathers" parody of the R-rated film Goodfellas), Freakazoid! sports the same propensity to include material that would be better appreciated by mom and dad if only they could stomach the juvenile shenanigans inbetween. References are made to F-Troop, The Andy Griffith Show, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Star Trek II, Jack Valenti and Paul Harvey.

Conversely, there are references made that are so specific to the time in which the show aired that they would be equally lost on today's kids sitting down to watch the show on DVD. In addition to the parodies of Disney's Gargoyles, there are numerous references to the movie Congo (which, as revealed in the audio commentary on one of the episodes, was something the writers had all gone to see just before scripting some of the episodes), a parody of Quantum Leap, the closing of the Skyway and Motor Boat Cruise at Disneyland, and numerous references to the "new" WB Network and DreamWorks Studio. A caricature of Princess Diana even appears in a few episodes, along with a very primitive vision of what this whole new "Internet" thing looks like, further dating the adventures of Freakazoid.

The jarring juxtaposition of smart meta humor with childish yelling, along with the compounding of already adult-skewed parodies with now-dated '90s references ensures that Freakazoid! has a very limited audience indeed. Like I said before, if you have don't possess fond memories of already watching this series back when it aired on TV, you're not likely to get much out of this DVD set.

Freakazoid!: Season 1 offers up some nice bonus features, including three insightful commentary tracks from the producer, writers and voice of Freakazoind himself, a series of cruise ship commercial parodies that served as promos for the show, trailers and a feature describing how the development of the show transitioned it from a straightforward superhero cartoon ala Batman: The Animated Series to the non-sequitor-laced jumble it became.

An odd feature of the set is that two of the cartoons, "The Cloud" and "Candle Jack," both appear twice in their entirety on this set, the latter even appearing twice on the same disc! Now, arguably these are the two best cartoons of the series, but why repeat them on the DVD set? It's the first time I've ever heard of "reruns" being included on a DVD release, and serves to only further stoke the notion of so much of the series consisting of uneven filler.


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