DVD Review: TV Animation: Rokcy & Bullwinkle, Family Guy, The Simpsons, Futurama
By Glenn Abel
Hello there, history gang. Today's subject is the U.S.
cultural revolution of
the 1960s. Truth-seekers should reopen the case of media provocateurs Rocky the
flying squirrel and Bullwinkle the moose -- along with their unindicted co-
conspirators, the communists Boris and Natasha.
Grill any draft card-burning Yuppie of the day and you'd find allegiance to the Tao of moose and squirrel: All bourgeoisie fairy tales must be fractured; all ivory-tower history must be toppled and recast. Authority -- pompous and bumbling -- exists to be tweaked. Only talking dogs and Mr. Know-it-all may be trusted. ... Thank you for your attention.
"Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends" debuted in 1959 to the delight of young baby boomers. Along with Mad magazine and Marvel Comics, Jay Ward and Bill Scott's wildly imaginative animated series helped liberate the American sense of humor from the stifling Eisenhower era. Kids knew the show was hipper than anything else on the air. It never talked down to them and the puns were delightfully awful.
Pop-culture historians can draw a line from "Bullwinkle" to "M*A*S*H," "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons." Cartoonist Matt Groening did just that when he paired Bullwinkle and his Homer Simpson on the cover of TV Guide's issue celebrating the "50 Greatest Cartoon Characters of All Time."
Those who missed out on the fun need not fret. Sony Wonder has finally brought the show to DVD as "Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends: Complete Season 1" (four-disc set retail $39.98).
The four-disc set packs in 26 shows, more or less as they aired back in the day. The first season of "Rocky and His Friends" -- as it was called at the time -- covered two "R&B" arcs: The epic "Jet Fuel Formula" (40 episodes) and "Box Top Robbery" (12). The "R&B" adventures have been returned to twice-a-show cliffhangers, unlike on past videos that mashed together the segments.
Hard-case nostalgists will note that intros and some music come from the second season, a decision apparently based on Jay Ward's preference. The addition of modern watermarks during intros will inspire some head-scratching. And dashing Dudley Do-Right makes a premature entrance. But all in all, the "R&B" experience remains intact.
The gang's all here: Boris and Natasha, Sherman and Peabody, Aesop and Son. All brought to life by some of the top voice talent of the day: William Conrad (the excitable narrator), June Foray (Rocky and Natasha), Paul Frees (Boris) and Bill Scott (Bullwinkle). Only the Cap'n Crunch ads are missing.
"R&B" animation was done on the cheap in Mexico, so it's hard to say how much quality has been lost. The DVDs' images are colorful and reasonably sharp, but with non-stop minor wear. Audio sounds crisp, with some odd variations in volume. The presentation is probably as good as it's going to get -- and it's good enough.
Extras are fun, but seem thrown together. The rarely seen Bullwinkle puppet dispenses advice to the lovelorn in unaired live-action bits. Black-and-white promos hype "Rocky and His Friends" while "The Bullwinkle Show" sports color bumpers. Moose and squirrel do their patriotic bit for U.S. bonds. Season 2, expected next year, is teased in two episodes about moon mice. A short but sweet booklet surveys the show and its creators.
Jay Ward's gentle subversion devolved into perversion in 1999 when Fox unleashed "Family Guy," pretty much a lock for the most profane animated show ever on a major network.
An equal-opportunity offender, "Family Guy" took the standard sitcom family, added an erudite talking dog and a gay baby set on world domination, and let the jokes fly at a dizzying pace. It's an acquired (bad) taste that rewards the few, the willing with big-time laughs.
Creator Seth MacFarlane wrestled with Fox's censors for three seasons. Improbably, he calls them "wonderful, wonderful people."
"They knew what the show was; they knew it was on the edge, and there was never any attempt (on their part) to fix that," MacFarlane says. When the show faced sure cancellation, the censors let him use a bleeped-out "fuck" as a going-away present.
Fox has released "Family Guy: Volume 2 Season 3" ($49.98) in a three-disc set that looks and feels like the studio's splendid "Simpsons" boxes. (Fox's ani sets are a lot like TV itself -- slick presentation, familiar formats, few sudden turns).
MacFarlane and his work buddies render commentary on selected episodes, sounding like they're in the middle of a beer bust, or recovering from one. Fox adds an adult-material warning, for good reason.
Bonus features are a lot more generous than on Volume 1. Two decent featurettes, "Uncensored" and "Series Overview," will orient disoriented newcomers. Animatics revive 28 deleted scenes, some pretty funny. MacFarlane's animated pitch, a rough version of the pilot episode, unspools in its entirety.
Fans get their holy grail with "When You Wish Upon a Weinstein," an episode rejected by Fox. The story, about the Family Guy's imbecilic beliefs about Jews and money, made it to post, but then Fox "chickened out," MacFarlane says. Archie Bunker never would have made it onto the air in the PC era, he and his pals conclude.
Matt Groening's "The Simpsons" discovered the ratings power of celebrity guests in the 1991-92 season, for better or worse. Guest stars included Michael Jackson, Sting, Spinal Tap, Magic Johnson and Jackie Mason. The evidence is collected in Fox's "The Simpsons: The Complete Third Season" (four discs, $49.98).
The season premiere was born when fan Jackson called up saying, "I want to give Bart a No. 1 single." Working with the gloved one had its cloak-and-dagger moments -- the show wasn't allowed to credit Jackson as the voice of his fat white character -- but the team remembers the experience as "a very pleasant surprise."
Aerosmith were the first rockers to do the show, a big deal at the time. "They couldn't have been more like rock stars," Groening recalls. The musicians were going through rehab, so they spent hours pouring their hearts out to staffers. Bassist Tom Hamilton "could have been a voice-over actor," Groening recalls. The episode, "Flaming Moe," delivered a full ratings point above the series average. It remains one of fans' top 5 shows, Groening says. (Censors somehow didn't have a problem with the title.)
That year's Emmy entry, "Radio Bart," was "a tremendous flop," Groening says. The episode, based on a Billy Wilder film and guest-starring Sting, remains a staff favorite. They lost the Emmy to a Claymation Easter special, and still can't believe it.
Fox didn't want Spinal Tap on the show -- even if series regular Harry Shearer was in the bogus band. "You could have gotten a real group for that money," the network beefed.
"Like Father Like Clown" earned Jackie Mason the only Emmy won by a "Simpsons" guest. "The Jazz Singer" takeoff concerned Krusty's reunion with his estranged rabbi dad. One of the inspirations for Krusty was Oregon TV clown Rusty Nails, whom "we worshipped," Groening says. Groening provides commentary on all 24 episodes, supported by a revolving cast that includes Julie Kavner, Dan Castellaneta, James L. Brooks, and assorted directors, show runners and writers. The gang commentaries keep the chatter coming, but it's impossible to tell who's saying what. Talking for more than 600 minutes leaves plenty of time for ruminating, as Groening does on the subject of digital animation: "They were promising me the world when we went digital. ... It wasn't quite that good. But nobody wants to be in ink-and-paint any more. All the good people moved over to digital because this is a dying art."
Extras include some of Groening's marked-up storyboards and scene-specific sketches. A clip shows the giant Bart balloon menacing the 1991 Macy's Thanksgiving parade. A "jukebox" punches up the season's big musical numbers.
Groening's spaced-out "Futurama" never got far from cult status, but the quality usually was as high as the humor was low.
Fox's release of "Futurama Volume 2" (four discs, $49.98) should help fans through their mourning period -- the show finally fell from the network's orbit in August.
Wall-to-wall commentaries again test Groening's endurance. Staffers joke that they spent more time on goofy product names and backgrounds than on dialog.
Extras include the working animatic for one episode and "alien ads" for products like Soylent Chow. Some of Bender the Robot's beer-fueled rants can be accessed in four languages. Fifteen deleted scenes (blink and you'll miss them) are spread around the set.
Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter
Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter
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