overthinking the idiot box

April 10, 2006

Animation on television, child-safe and otherwise.

Your 2005 Cartoon Shopping List

by Adam Lipkin

So this is definitely the time to look ahead at DVD releases, and set aside any tax return money before you waste it on nonessentials like student loans, groceries, and clothing.
I know, April seems like an odd month to put together a DVD-buying guide. After all, it's a long way from the traditional Christmas/Hanukkah/Festivus season, and this just isn't the time of the year for gifts. But by April, most of the studios have set their release dates for the year, and we finally have a sense of what to expect throughout the next few months. So this is definitely the time to look ahead at DVD releases, and set aside any tax return money before you waste it on nonessentials like student loans, groceries, and clothing.

(Additionally, for those in an incredibly generous mood, it's worth noting that this writer will have just celebrated a birthday two days before this column is published, and would certainly not turn down any of these sets, or anything else found on his wishlist.)

With that in mind, let's count down the eight sets to look forward to this year (release dates in parentheses, with the usual warning that dates change often):

8. American Dad, Volume 1 (April 25). Yeah, The Simpsons slammed it as a plagiarism of Family Guy and as a plagiarism of The Simpsons once removed (and the fact that the writers on The Simpsons feel the need to slam other shows tells you just how far they've fallen). And it's easy to dismiss at first as a cheap knock-off, given the similarities in animation style and voicework. But American Dad in many ways surpasses its predecessor, throwing in some surprisingly sharp political satire, some fine writing, and the best use of Patrick Stewart since Bryan Singer put him in a wheelchair. Add a sex-crazed goldfish and an alcoholic space alien who's channeling Paul Lynde to the mix, and it's hard to go wrong with this set.

7. The Venture Brothers, Season 1 (May 30): Before The Boondocks, this was the last great show to debut on Adult Swim. It's also the first original half-hour Adult Swim show. A wacky mix of pop culture parody, classic sci-fi/mad scientist tropes, and just utter weirdness, it's one of the shows that best stand up to repeated viewings. The DVD set will include a few episodes with commentary, as well as the hysterical (if too short) Christmas Special.

6. X-Men, Evolution, The Complete Third Season (May 23). Once Fox buried the final (and best) season of this show, fans were stuck with only the nigh-unwatchable mid-'90s cartoon on Toon Disney if they wanted to watch the adventures of Wolverine and his comrades. Fortunately, come May, we'll have the final season of this nicely imaginative series that takes the basic concepts of Bryan Singer's movies and fleshes them out. This season takes some groundbreaking risks, blurring the lines between traditional villains and heroes in a way that many previous superhero toons had ignored. There are some nice touches (including an episode that manages to reunite the original five X-Men from 1963), and a solid overarching plot (involving Apocalypse and Magneto) that leads to a great finale.

5. Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, Season 1 (May 9). How the inferior Home Movies (the "squigglevision" follow-up to Dr. Katz) managed to score four seasons on DVD before this show, one of the best in the pre-South Park era of Comedy Central, is beyond me. Dr. Katz manages to combine moments of comic awkwardness on a par with those on The Office with standup routines of comedians, including Laura Kightlinger, Ray Romano, and Dave Atell, all of whom appear during season 1. It's a bizarre formula, but one that works surprisingly well. Alas, Season 1 is only six episodes long, which means that this will be a small set. Later seasons were thirteen episodes long, and featured such guests as Emo Phillips, Gary Shandling, Steven Wright, and David Duchovny. If this sells well, we can hope that the later seasons will be released as well.

4. This is America, Charlie Brown (June 13). Okay, it's not as cutting edge as some of the more recent cartoons. But there are few things in life better than a Peanuts cartoon, and this collection of educational shorts (originally aired as a miniseries in 1988) is as much fun as any DVD featuring Charlie Brown and his friends. It's educational, which means that you might not be able to get the kids to watch it, but adults should have no problem enjoying the show.

3. Justice League Season 2/Superman: The Animated Series Season 3/Superman: Brainiac Attacks (all June 20). I've made no secret of my love for the animated DC Universe. These three discs, containing some of the best episodes of two of the three cornerstone series, as well as what may be the last original movie set in that universe, are all must-buys. I've raved about the various animated DC cartoons often enough in this column that I think anyone should know by now just how amazing they are.

2. The Tick (no official date set). Spoooon! Although an official press release still hasn't been seen, the good folks at TV Shows on DVD broke the news in January that Ben Edlund's creation would be hitting DVD sometime this year (along with Darkwing Duck, which has never been my cup of tea, but I know there are fans out there). The adventures of the big, blue, and dumb titular hero and his accountant sidekick are surreal, hysterical, and never get old. Although there are some great villains (including Chairface Chippendale, El Seed, and, of course, the Mucous Tick), it's the assorted (and mostly incompetent) heroes, such as the cowardly Die Fleidermaus, the hero savant Sewer Urchin, and the self-righteous (and easily frustrated) American Maid, who really make the show. This belongs in any super-hero fan's library.

1. Animaniacs Volume 1/Pinky and the Brain Volume 1 (July 25). Few shows had more of an impact on cartoons or viewers than Animaniacs. The best cartoon of the '90s (and arguably of all time), it managed to turn cartoon conventions on their heads, with parodies, tributes, and one of the most imaginative casts of characters out there. Our leads are three wacky cartoons who were locked away for years because they were too insane for society. Their adventures encompass everything from musical numbers to movie parodies to anarchic slapstick. Aside from the three title characters, the show features such bizarre concepts as the Goodfeathers (Goodfellas meets pigeons, complete with a Brando-esque Godpigeon), Slappy Squirrel (a cranky veteran cartoon actor, whose best skit, "Bumbie's Mom," is in this set), and Chicken Boo, who always tried to pass as human, and is always, in the end, found out.

The most successful of the various characters, of course, were the lab mice Pinky and the Brain. As their theme song notes, one is a genius, the other's insane. Brain, however, is a megalomaniac, and his attempts to take over the world (all of which would be approved of by Rube Goldberg) are often foiled by Pinky's mix of idiocy and over-enthusiasm. I can't imagine anyone having not seen these cartoons, which are as significant to the modern age of cartoons as the original Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies cartoons were to the golden age of cartoons.

And, because I wouldn't want to give the impression that the year will be perfect, here's the top cartoon that's still deeply in need of a DVD release:

1. Freakazoid. Great as The Tick was, nothing compares to the other zany blue superhero of the '90s. Years ahead of its time, this show gave us an internet-inspired superhero who knew no boundaries. Produced by Amblin (the folks behind Animaniacs), this takes the postmodern zaniness of the Animaniacs to the next level, with a hero who seemed to have no limits on his power, save for his own tendency to get distracted by a need for anarchy. The villains on the show include The Lobe, a classic insane supergenius; Cave Guy, a hyper-educated, erudite caveman; and Guitierrez (voiced by Ricardo Monteban), the insane businessman who accidentally created the titular hero. No show had more pop culture references, gags, and insanity per episode than Freakazoid, and Warner Brothers needs to pull this one out of the archives and give it the treatment it so richly deserves.

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