Nickelodeon (March 30, 2001), Anime Works/Media Blasters (April 19, 2005), 7 discs, 675 minutes plus supplements, 1.33:1 original full frame ratio, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, Not Rated, Retail: $129.95
An alien race sends one of their own down to Earth to conquer the entire human race. Fortunately for the human race, they send Zim who, together with his robot GIR, attempts to overcome scary Chihuahuas, mall security, Earth holidays, school, meat, and of course, his own incompetence.
The Sweatbox Review:
I first watched Invader Zim after reading strong reactions to the show on the web, and after it was highly recommended by a friend of mine. After watching the first episode, I instantly became a fan. My initial thought on the show was that it was hilarious and completely innovative. I was laughing out loud to a kid’s cartoon show for the first time in a long time. I was hooked. I couldn’t stop watching and the show quickly became one of my all-time favorite Nickelodeon show, and perhaps one of my favorite half-hour television shows ever. Unfortunately, the show only lasted until the end of 2002 before its home network, Nickelodeon, decided to pull the plug. When the news about the cancellation was announced, I was very upset. Because I became a fan of the show so late in its run, I did not have the chance to see all of the episodes and the show was quickly being buried in Nick’s schedule. It seemed like the end for fans of the the show, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Jhonen Vasquez, a comic book writer who had gained some popularity with his innovative Jonny the Homicidal Maniac books, is the creator of Invader Zim. At the time, Nickelodeon had become one of the key places for up-and-coming talents to develop their artistic styles. It was a place where a creator could become the driving force behind a show. The studio that had brought Rugrats and Doug to the public now had new superstars like SpongeBob SquarePants and Fairly Odd Parents – all shows with a clear creative force behind them. Executives were looking for innovative cartoons that could appeal to both kids and grownups in their schedule, much like SpongeBob. Invader Zim made its television debut on March 30th, 2001 and while it got off to a promising start, ratings for the show were not initially what Nick executives had hoped for. Rumors began circulating about creative tensions with the execs and of censorship over some ideas and images. One noticeable example was in “The Most Horrible X-Mas Ever” where some images were cut from the final episode. Slowly, the show faded from Nick’s schedule and consequently was cancelled.
When fans found out that the show has been cancelled, many became outraged at Nickelodeon for not providing the promotional attention that the show needed to gain popularity like it had done with SpongeBob. Other fans complained about the rumored unaired episodes and of the scheduling problems with the show. Fans quickly began to push for a DVD release of the show, but, without Nick’s support, the show had little chance of being released. It soon became evident that Nickelodeon did not particularly like the show, and the show didn’t even appear in special DVD compilations of Nick shows. However, fans didn’t give up and they made several appeals for Nick to bring the show back or to release it on DVD. One thing about Invader Zim fans that I discovered during the process of writing this review is that they are rabid. These weren’t just kids, but young adults who particularly liked the humor found on the show. While it was common to find college students who watched SpongeBob, Zim fans didn’t just watch the show. They talked about the show with one another, traded favorite quotes, and purchased merchandising (something Nickelodeon would only find out late in the game).
Fortunately for fans, one company who had had an eye on the show was MediaBlasters, a company who had mainly specialized in anime releases. The company was able to reach an agreement with Nickelodeon to release all of the show’s episodes on DVD, including all the unaired episodes. With help from the fans who were encouraged to send in their ideas, and with the support of the show’s creators, including Jhonen Vasquez, they saved the day producing a great DVD set with strong bonus features that would appeal to fans. It finally seemed like the show was in the hands of someone who cared, much to the collective relief of the fans.
The concept of the show is fairly simple. An alien race sends one of their own down to Earth to conquer the entire human race. Fortunately for the human race, they send Zim. Zim is a member of the Irkin Empire, a corporative race of short and militaristic aliens who are led by The Tallest (two tall Irken leaders). Each “invader”, as the soldiers are known, are sent to one of the many planets in the universe to subdue them in time for the arrival of the Irkin Armada. This operation is known as “Operation Impending Doom 2”, not to be confused with “Impending Doom 1”, which single-handedly failed due to Zim’s stupidity. Zim, who had been banished to a planet called Foodcortia, makes an appearance at the Operation Impending Doom 2 pep rally, and in order to get rid of him, the Tallest send him to an unknown, faraway planet called Earth. To “aid” him on his task, they give him a broken robot named GIR and send him on his way.
On Earth, Zim faces the difficult task of adapting and blending in with his Earthly surroundings, so he establishes his base and disguises himself as an elementary school student. At school, Zim’s greatest nemesis becomes Dib who believes, and finds out, that Zim is an alien. In fact, Zim blends in so well with his weird surroundings, Dib is the only one that seems to notice that Zim has green skin and no ears. Fortunately for Zim, no one believes Dib because he’s always made these claims about different things. Basically unopposed, Zim continues with his plans to conquer Earth with Dib constantly at his heels trying to stop him. However, Dib doesn’t have to try hard to stop Zim due to Zim’s incompetence. In fact, Zim’s major challenges on Earth, don’t even come from Dib, but from scary Chihuahuas, mall security, Earth holidays, school, meat, and of course, his own incompetence.
At the heart of the show, and what makes viewing such a pleasure are the interactions between Zim, Dib, and GIR. Zim, is completely ineffective at conquering the alien race, and he really does give it his all, but his plans are so ludicrous, that they are bound to fail before they start. Zim takes Dib as a serious foe, and spends more energy trying to fool him, than on actually conquering Earth. Dib, of course, is funny just because he takes Zim’s plans so seriously and he actually thinks that Zim is intelligent. It’s funny that both of these characters kind of give up in later episodes, which also changes the dynamic on the show. Besides Zim and Dib, the heart of the show also belongs to GIR, the taco-loving maniacal robot who’s arguably the most popular character on the show. I’m not ashamed to say that GIR is my favorite character, although there are many fans that are bothered by his popularity. Of course, there is also a wonderful supporting cast made up of Dib’s sister Gaz, Zim’s evil teacher Ms. Bitters, and Dib’s insane father Professor Membrane.
One of the trademarks of the show was its exaggerated humor, which was sometimes grotesque, but always funny. Part of the reason the gross and exaggerated violence is funny is because you laugh at how exaggerated and ridiculous the situation is. For example, in one scene a kid’s eyes are ripped out of his head and replaced with mind-controlling ones, which would normally be a very disturbing scene. However, the timing and situation in which it happens is so exaggerated, and so funny that one gets over the fact that it’s very creepy. The show plays well because you always want to see what will happen next when Zim disastrously tries to conquer Earth. In one of the several commentaries on this DVD set, Vasquez talks about the fact that the network didn’t really seem to be paying attention to the show and that they got away with many things. The script had excellent comic timing – just watch GIR and Zim bantering about a particular topic. One of my favorite exchanges between the two is the following:
Zim (shouting): GIR! What have you done to the observatory?
GIR (shy): Nothing.
Zim (confused): Nothing? Something is broke and it’s not your fault?
GIR (scared): I know. I’m scared too.
A crucial element to Invader Zim’s success was its excellent voice cast. Creator Jhonen Vasquez mentions in his commentaries that he had a hard time casting the main characters because he wanted unique, unknown, voices for his characters. Originally, Billy West (who was working on Futurama at the time) was going to be Zim, and he even voiced the original pilot episode. However, eventually Vasquez decided to go with Richard Horvitz. Horvitz, who had reached some success doing work on another Nick show, The Angry Beavers, became perfect as the neurotic Zim. His character is screaming and yelling most of the time on the show, so to make that kind of character appealing is a testament to his talent. Rikki Simons who voices GIR also has a unique voice and helped create a memorable character with some of the show’s best lines. Other great voice actors on the show include Andy Berman (Dib), Melissa Charles (Gaz), Roger Bumpass (Professor Membrane), the legendary Lucille Bliss (Miss Bitters), Wally Wingert (Almighty Tallest Red), and Kevin McDonald of Kids in the Hall fame (Almighty Tallest Purple).
By the end of its short run on Nickelodeon, Invader Zim had become an animation cult hit. The show’s many cult symbols like pigs, moose, scary monkeys, and Chihuahuas were stamped on t-shirts, and websites decided to the show spread all over the Internet. Fans got together and began to trade favorite quotes, and the show became somewhat of an Internet phenomenon. Back when file sharing was focused on music, Zim fans were already trading favorite episodes with one another, talking about the deleted segments on the episodes, spotting cameos of the creators in different episodes, and spreading the fever to people who had never caught it on television. When the show eventually got cancelled, people were very upset, but things turned around when rumors of the show coming to DVD began circulating on the Internet. The announcement was arguably one of the biggest of that year. Two years later, we’re still talking about it.
Is This Thing Loaded?
On most DVD releases, I would say that the highlights of the special features section are the in-depth documentaries about the making of the show or the history of how it was developed. However, in this release, it’s different. On this release, I would like to point out that the best special feature is the audio commentary track of the people involved on the show. These tracks feature commentaries with creator Jhonen Vasquez, Rikki Simons, Andy Berman, Melissa Fahn, Richard Horvitz, Wally Wingert, Eric Trueheart, Danielle Koenig, Jason Stiff, Bryan Konietzko, Ian Graham, Chris Graham, and Rayfield Angrum – and that’s just on the first volume! The second volume adds Kevin Manthei (the composer for the show), two random fans (of whom I’m jealous of), and Roman Dirge. Like most commentaries, the people mainly pick on the episode’s faults, which can be a little irritating, but also very interesting. The group of people talking is obviously very close and they all care a great deal about the show. They are lively, and humorous, and at times self-deprecating. They all eventually gang up on Jhonen for being a perfectionist and his negative views. A note: commentaries are never for the casual fan, and one should never watch the show with comments before watching an episode for the first time (it ruins the timing). This commentary track is for fans, not all die-hard, but for fans of the show who want to get to know the people behind the show. I loved it.
Another special feature found on all volumes are the animatics. These are sketches-in-action – storyboards-in-motion directors often use before animating a show. These are a welcome addition to the set, and it includes great sketches from the early stages of the show. I think this is a common occurrence in anime-themed DVDs, so it’s no wonder that Anime Works decided to include them here.
All volumes also include one featurette on the second disc focusing on the creative process of the show, as well as Irken subtitles on the episodes.
Of all the volumes, volume one includes the best special features – probably so that the first volume can get new viewers interested in the show, and to satisfy up-front demand. The first is Interviews with the Cast – “The Voices of Zim” (13:03). In this featurette, Richard Horvitz (Zim) reveals why Jhonen initially did not want to use him, and why “Why was there bacon in the soap?” is his favorite line in the series. Rikki Simons (GIR) discusses how he first got attracted to the project. Melissa Fahn (Gaz) talks about the creative and crazy atmosphere in the studio and her love of piggys. Andy Berman (Dib) talks about the unique vision Jhonen brought to the show. Finally, Wally Wingert (Almighty Tallest Red) talks about how Kevin McDonald (Almighty Tallest Purple) got his part and he got relegated to being red instead. Another exclusive disc one features include a Pig Commentary on “Bad Bad Rubber Piggy” (an inside joke, with literally hundreds of oinks all the way through the episode).
Perhaps the 2nd highlight of volume one (aside from the commentary tracks) is the original pilot (13:33). In this original pilot for the show, Zim is already in school and Dib starts a food fight with him. The voice cast is different, but the animation and style is the same. I prefer the pilot they aired instead of this one, but it’s a solid pilot. I can see what the Nick executives initially found appealing in the series. It was a lot more kid-friendly than the final version of the show. There is also a great commentary for this episode that discusses the original concept and voice cast for the show.
The features on disc four (Volume 2) include an Interview with the Writers called “The Writers of Zim” (9:55). Here, Eric Trueheart, Danielle Koenig, and Roman Dirge talk about how they got on board with the show, their favorite characters to write for, how the characters developed throughout the two seasons, their favorite episodes, plans for the characters beyond cancellation, and the use of pig jokes in the scripts. Perhaps one of the most interesting comments here comes from Danielle who says that like pigs, the show was cute and disgusting at the same time. From these interviews, it is clear that if the show had been picked up, we would have continued to get great, bizarre episodes from these talented writers.
The featurette on disc 6 (Volume 3) is an Interview with the Production Staff (14:30). Here, Bryan Konietzko (art director), Jason Stiff (post production supervisor), Ian Graham (storyboard artist), Chris Graham (storyboard artist), and Rayfield Angrum (storyboard artist) talk about what their jobs were on the show, and how they got involved. They also talk about in which Jhonen approached each episode, and about how he wanted to make sure every shot looked good, and was always trying to do new things with them.
Of course, the jewel of this set is the 7th disc that comes exclusively with the collector’s package. This seventh disc includes over 200 minutes of special features. Basically, think of everything you have not gotten from the special features in the other volumes (short of a full two-hour documentary on the Zim), and you have an idea of what is on this final disc. Before the news of an Invader Zim DVD set came out, online fans buzzed about the unfinished episodes, and the cuts to “The Most Horrible X-Mas Ever.” There were even rumored bootleg copies of these unfinished Zim goodies. Luckily, we don’t have to resort to being criminals to watch them. On this set, there is an Interview with Kevin Manthei about his music, a featurette about Invader Zim Sound Design, audio from the unfinished episodes (which were already in the early stages when the show got cancelled), an Invader Zim Sample Soundtrack (featuring the best scores from the series), and of course, the unseen seconds that were cut out of “The Most Horrible X-Mas Ever.” All features come highly recommended, and make the purchase of the Zim collector’s set worth every penny.
This set features probably one of the best ideas for a collector’s edition packaging I have reviewed. Here, we have a cardboard replica of the Invader Zim house featured on the show complete with enough room for four separate keepcase DVDs – the three two-disc volumes of the show, plus one bonus disc. The roof of the house opens up (just like on the show) and there is a plastic GIR toy (which now sits proudly on my desk) inside. The two-disc keepcases are the ones with locking mechanisms commonly used to keep kids away form DVDs. On the inside of each set comes a list of chapters and extras on each disc.
Most importantly, this show can be purchased with each disc separately. If you really don’t want the Zim house with the bonus disc, you can chose to purchase the three volumes individually. If you’re a fan that has already purchased the three volumes (like I did), don’t be discouraged. You can get the house with just the bonus disc (without the three volumes). Trust me. It’s worth it.
Ink And Paint:
Invader Zim is very…pink. I’m not just talking about the character, but also about the show. It is also full or reds, purples, greens, dark blues and other dark hues, but pink is prevalent. The animation style is very stylized with sharp edges, big heads, small or elongated bodies, and big eyes. This, however, is not what makes the show stand out since many current shows feature similar animation styles. What makes the show stand out in terms of its animation, are the unique angles the animators and directors place the characters. The characters are always in interesting angles – looking up, down, left and to the right of the characters in the most dramatic poses. The episodes, with very few exceptions, all look great from an artistic point of view, and the style Vasquez employed in his comics is also visible on this show. The storyboard artists for this show were the most recognized for their work on the show. Kyle Menke won an Emmy Award for his work animating the pilot and Steve Rassel won an Annie for storyboarding the same episode (as well as a well-deserved directing nomination for his excellent work in “Dark Harvest”). The shots were so amazing that it was very hard for this reviewer to decide on which screenshots to put in this review.
Most of Invader Zim is traditional 2D animation, although there are some spectacular, but simple, CG graphics found on the show. In one of the commentaries, Vazques talks about how they blew their entire CG budget on the episode “Nanozim”, and one can tell from this video-game-themed episode that the animators had a fun time creating the CG environment. However, while they may have blown their CG budget on that particular episode, they must have frequently gone overbudget since there are many other episodes with big CG-animated actions sequences – perhaps money was one of the reasons why Nickelodeon had difficulties with the show. Some of the spaceships and robots featured on the show look really impressive, blending well with the rest of the 2D animation.
The entire set runs over 650 minutes (the advertised running time is 225 minutes per volume), with individual discs running between 1.5 and 2 hours each. Each episode runs approximately 11 minutes. The first volume includes episodes 1-9, the second 10-18, and the third 19-27. The final extras disc has an additional 200 minutes of running time, although this includes the soundtrack for the show. The episodes all come with chapter stops after the opening, in the middle of the first episode, the beginning of the second episode, and in the middle of the 2nd episode. The quality of the transfer is good with no visible grain, although like many television shows some of the images are slowed down in editing, which causes some shots to look paused. All images are shown in the 1.33:1 full screen aspect ratio.
Of course, it is not just the images and visual effects that are top notch on this show, and the sound design and soundtrack also stand out on their own. Creatively, everything from the theme music to the sound effects fit the show perfectly. The eerie Kevin Manthei soundtrack is a perfect fit for the show, and the random sound effects just add to the odd atmosphere of the show. In a typical episode, one may hear balloons being rubbed, spaceship noises where there aren’t any, guns, bombs, screams in the background, and characters making animal noises instead of talking (sheep, pigs, monkeys, etc…). Of course, the star on the audio front is Kevin Manthei who makes regular appearances in the commentaries (on some of the more musical episodes) as well as on the bonus disc where his best work is included on the soundtrack. Manthei, who does regular work for the video game industry, including memorable tunes for Civilization II, Nancy Drew series, and the recent Ultimate Spider-Man game, really does stand out and I hope to see more of his work in the future. The show features a Dolby Digital 2.0 track in both Spanish and English.
In case you skipped the extensive review to hear my final words, let me sum this up. Invader Zim is probably one of the top ten new animated shows of the past decade. The show was unfortunately cut short due to rumored creative difficulties with its network. However, for fans who just can’t get enough of the show, and for people who never got a chance to watch it the first time, this DVD set guarantees the show will continue to be remembered. Invader Zim is a show that is funny, cute, and bizarre at the same time while being thoroughly entertaining. Very few shows make me laugh, but this one is the exception. Some quotes from the show still make me laugh just by remembering them! If you’re still not convinced about getting this release, then there is always the extensive care in which this set was produced with top-notch, extensive features, input from the creators, and a special collector’s box for the true Zim fan. If you’re still not convinced, read the full review again before you make your final decision.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?