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Freakazoid!: Season 2

Warner Bros./Amblin Entertainment (1996-1997), Warner Home Video (April 21 2009), 2 discs, 232 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 original full frame ratio, Dolby Digital Surround, Not Rated, Retail: $26.98

Storyboard:

“His brain’s overloading, it has a chocolate coating; textbook case for Sigmund Freud, Freakazoid, Freakazoid!”. The WB’s superheroic spoof successor to Animaniacs returns for its second and final season which, despite a slight switch that somewhat dampens the strike rate, remains a highly surreal slice of animated entertainment. “Floyd the barber cuts his hair, freaka me, freaka you”…Freakazoid!

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The Sweatbox Review:

Originally conceived as a much more sober animated outing by Bruce Timm, Freakazoid was to be his reward for providing such outstanding programming as Batman: The Animated Series and its spin-offs, until the Warner Bros. Television Animation team that had also proven successes with shows as Tiny Toon Adventures, Taz Mania, Pinky And The Brain and, of course, Animaniacs, which was to serve as an unofficial template for the new program, grabbed hold. As WB’s long-time partner Steven Spielberg, who had executive produced Tiny Toons and Animaniacs, came aboard, Timm left for darker comic book fare, leaving Freakazoid! itself to become more broad, moving away from the action and towards the sometimes downright bizarre.

The first season of the show essentially replayed the Animaniacs formula with new characters: there was an aim towards a slightly older audience, but the format of two, three or even four different character segments per show was a carry over from the Animaniacs days. However, just as that show had begun to lose focus towards the end of its run, Freakazoid! also, between moments of pure genius, had its own issues with remaining consistent. With Animaniacs hindered by having to stick with its established stable of characters, Freakazoid! allowed the imaginations to run riot all over again, and often at sci-fi and geek targets as opposed to the Looney Tunes feel of the earlier cartoons.

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But with great hilarity comes great responsibility and if Freakazoid!’s first season was marred by anything, it was the eventual repetition of character gags: just as Animaniacs’ Chicken Boo or Katie Kaboom inserts became predictable, the adventures of the Jack Palance styled The Huntsman, a Green Arrow type who has a tough time finding crime to fight in the big city, not only played out the same each week but sometimes, if the show was running short, included the same footage. As such, these fringe characters, who had realistically run their course, had been chopped by the time Freakazoid! made it back to screens for round two; the focus now being on full episode-length story arcs in which some of those characters might pop up from time to time, often amusingly referencing the fact they’ve been cut from a TV show.

Thus, the revamped Freakazoid! isn’t always as fresh as its debuting season, even though some flashes of genuine madness shine through. With the very same opening credit sequence taking care of Dexter Douglas’ backstory and Freakazoid’s origins – nerd computer ace gets zapped into cyberspace to become a lunatic super-teen extraordinaire – the first episode is Dexter’s Date, and to all intents and purposes the average viewer might concede that nothing has changed. In a wonderful parody of Hello Dolly, arch nemesis The Lobe (my favorite of the Freakazoid! villains and brilliantly performed by David Warner) returns in grand style, accompanied by the full song and dance ensemble warbling Bonjour Lobey, complete with “Louis Armstrong” cameo!

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But the parodies don’t start there: the top of the program begins us in typically random fashion with the Beany And Cecil-like “Steven Spielberg ShooOOoow” replacing the classic “Bob Clampett CartooOOoon”, a big nod towards the influences on the current artists as well as a nice setting up of the mood for those who get the joke. Naturally given the title of the episode, we spend more time with Dexter as usual, but as soon as The Lobe (“Don’t touch that dial – for the next sixty minutes I’m in control!”) turns up and takes over the NCB Television Network, planning to suck every film and television program into his high tech storage device (hey, apart from the idea to flood the market with bootleg video cassettes the guy is ahead of his time!) things take a turn for the wacky (for anyone who wonders why Bonjour Lobey fills out so much screen time, check out the disclaimer in the end credits. WB writers…we salute and thank you).

With a hot date waiting for him, Freakazoid just doesn’t have time to waste battling the villain, which puts The Lobe in a funk, feeling depressed and undervalued. Naturally, the only way to put things right is a big show-stopping number, which happens to take place right where Dexter has taken his sweetheart Steff! The Hello Lobey sequence has to be seen to be believed – it’s a classic example of the show – and overall this first episode manages to spin a single story out without feeling repetitive. The emphasis has changed from Freakazoid to being more about Dexter and the Freak’s realisation that he is simply another dimension to an average guy – both characters are able to switch willingly between themselves – and so the basic concept becomes a little more routine. Whereas Freakazoid was just a nuts superhero before, the extra dimension to Dexter’s scenes reduces him slightly to a regular superhero, albeit one that’s still totally unhinged. “Have a good time now!”

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It’s the Freak’s birthday next in The Freakazoid, and as such he has to fulfil the Superhero Code and grant requests, which The Lobe twists into asking Freakazoid to simply leave him alone, giving him carte blanche to begin a crime spree. The pitfalls of having to fill out entire episodes is felt here in the many diversions the show takes, though among them a pastiche on You’re A Mean One, Mister Grinch and a discussion between Freakazoid, Wacko and The Brain as to which of the their three shows producer Spielberg likes best raise big chuckles. You won’t need to do much guessing to work out what Mission: Freakazoid is ready to riff on, as our blue hero heads off to rescue his family, complete with a second title sequence, the introduction of Lost In Space’s Jonathan Harris (“Stop, you ninny!”) as the Freak’s new butler, and some great spoofing of Lalo Schifrin’s iconic music, though the overall result isn’t as quick fired as usual.

Virtual Freak begins with a pointed comment on Network Censors, an unexplained scene that’s obviously the show’s producers working out some private issues, before The Lobe traps Freakazoid and his cop buddy Cosgrove inside a computer game while the game characters run riot for real in the shopping mall. Despite the obvious premise, any allusions to Tron remain decidedly un-spoofed, which may have brought some geek fun to this otherwise monotonous episode, the best gag coming right at the end for “Babeheart”, about a cute little pig that slaughters the English. Much, much, much better is Hero Boy, an absolutely packed show that finds room for the return of Ricardo Montalban, spoofs of dubbed editions of Japanese staples Godzilla and Astro Boy, silent movie bloopers, and the Freakaclone – an exact replica of our blue boy, thus fulfilling every superhero’s need to come up against his own doppelganger.

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It’s a matter of “Huggbees!” in A Matter Of Love, when Cosgrove finds love with a lady who might not be all she seems, though if there’s any show in this set that feels stretched, it’s this one. Although the episode arc plots usually just about sustain themselves for the 20 or so minute durations, the sharpness of the shorter blocks is lost: if one had the feeling that a story wasn’t working, we wouldn’t worry as another would be along in a moment and there was always a group of things that made any episode memorable. And it wasn’t just for these creative reasons that previous shows were made like this: shorter segments could be farmed out to different studios, placed into different shows as they were completed and delivered, and could be brought in for less expenditure.

Could it be that Warner execs realised that ordering the show’s multi-segment format to switch to single stories was a mistake? They certainly seem to have become disenfranchised with the series as it continued, switching around the air times until it ended up playing at 7am on Saturdays, when its main adult audience wasn’t watching. The cost of the show had evidently risen, and it wasn’t long before the artists, storymen and producers saw the writing was on the wall for their program. It was clear: Freakazoid! wasn’t coming back for thirds, and they knew it. Boy did they know it, turning the last few episodes into a very strange selection of in-jokes and outright digs at the network until the final episode actually acknowledged the end of its era and paid tribute to all the characters that had previous appeared.

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Disc Two just about contains the lunacy within, starting with Statuesque, a rather epic episode with some serious production design and well paced action, in which Steff is transformed into stone and the Freak must travel the world to find the Vorn, the only creature that can turn her back. The Island Of Dr. Mystico is an even bigger episode, and the very funny tone is set off right at from the start with an absolutely brilliant Leonard Maltin sending his own movie-nut persona up before a rogue’s gallery of Freakazoid! villains are rounded up and shipped off to France until their plane lands on a mysterious island. Tim Curry hams it up expertly as the Bond-ian mad scientist of the title, while there are plenty of allusions to the obvious references.

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Two Against Freak features some terrific hand-drawn perspective animation in a spoof of reality cop shows, as a “hand-held camera” follows Cosgrove on a police bust. The first signs of the artists’ awareness that the Network might be losing faith in their show come spurting out here via the Freak’s pal Roddy: “Networks are fickle! They can drop you like a man with big oak fingers!” It has to be said that the running out of ideas is a genuine concern, with the show’s over reliance on supporting characters – Freakazoid is hardly used – and scripting that’s moved away from being based around a goofy superhero and leaning more towards a routine superhero show that packs in some random comedy.

Evidence that the single episode arc was proving tough to pad out is found in Freak-A-Panel / Tomb Of Invisibo, the season’s only two-part show, and one that still feels the need to play some repeat footage as filler in the intro, though this is admitted and played upon as a joke. Now this is more like it; the Freakazoid! we once knew, with spitfire gags and plenty of geek references generated by the sci-fi convention setting (“You made up a little language based on a TV show…that’s not right!”). Most fun is the Freak bumping into his old co-stars, with The Huntsman asking why they were all fired from the show! The second half has Freakazoid meeting an invisible mummy, the Indiana Jones-like feel coming primarily from the art direction and guest voice John Rhys Davies, while a montage sequence finds time for another song, in the style of big band 1950s girl singing groups.

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One of Freakazoid!’s traditions was a comical disclaimer buried in the final credits, and the penultimate show acknowledges that the program didn’t have long to live, an adamant refusal to apologize to “Klingon-Americans who may have been offended”. “What’s the WB going to do? Cancel us?” it mocks, sharply. Knowing their program was at its end, the final episode, Normadeus, completely throws caution to the wind, shoving in all manner of insider humor in this twisted pastiche on the musical biopic Amadeus. TV carpenter Norm Abram becomes the lynchpin of the jokes in this one, apparently the result of a production crew bet to get him involved, inspiring The Lobe to build his next doomsday machine from wood.

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As a show, it’s not especially more outlandish than anything that had come before, though a final rogues’ gallery fight between all the villains facing off against Freakazoid and Norm does pay homage to the 1960s Batman in fun style. But it’s the final segment, in which the entire cast – including producer Spielberg – are announced and brought on stage for a curtain call, which actually turns into a rather poignant moment as the characters sing We’ll Meet Again together. The final disclaimer card says it all, “Freakazoid has left the building”, but one likes to think they were right: they have met again all these years later on DVD and, while the single story arc shows aren’t as successful as those from the previous season, there are a handful of episodes which do match what came before, and anyone who’s a fan should find plenty to freak out about with this set.

Is This Thing Loaded?

Though much lighter on the bonus features included on the three-sided first season, Freakazoid! Season 2 just finds enough space to serve up a couple of very welcome extras. Although missing here are any full-length audio commentaries of the kind found last time, a typically crazy supplement is A Full Season’s Worth Of Commentaries (In Five Minutes Or Less), which is just what it seems (though it runs over five minutes!), with announcer Joe Leahy and the crew (Rich Arons, Paul Rugg, John McCann and Tom Ruegger) reminiscing over their best remembered moments on the program. While not obviously as engrossing as a handful of tracks on full shows, there’s still lots of good info here, such as an admittance that some shows basically needed filling out (with one sequence being famous for making Bruce Timm laugh). More fun is composer Richard Stone’s original Bonjour Lobey Demo Tape, a very enjoyable archival audio sampling of the Emmy award winner at work on the season’s standout song sequence, which runs a full minutes.

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On Disc Two, the six episodes on disc one to disc two’s five are evened up by the 20 minute Liebeslied Für Normadeus, in which the series’ creators speak about Freakazoid!’s second season and the changes that occurred. A game Leahy, the announcer from the original episodes, carries the same duties here, often very amusingly, but at other times he isn’t quite as funny as how he comes over in the room – the camera crew’s own laugh track proving that perhaps you had to be there. But otherwise this is a great potted history, broken up into four or five smaller sections that cover the renewal of the series, the switch to single story episodes, the casting of Jonathan Harris, the cancelling of the show and coercing of Norm Abram into the vocal booth, and the stories behind the cameo-filled finale. It zips by, a true highlight being writer-producer Paul Rugg’s impersonation of the much missed Ricardo Montalban…now that’s freaky!

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Previews for other WB animated fare on DVD are surprisingly limited, the first being a three-minute look at the Green Lantern’s history as a promotion for the upcoming First Flight movie, though as with other peeks at this title we again get shown nothing of the final product even though there’s a much more advanced trailer out there, while the second and final title plugged is The Zeta Project: Season 1. Disc Two offers up a further look at The Saturday Morning Cartoons collections.

Case Study:

Consistency is just about upheld between seasons with Freakazoid! Season 2 coming in a slipcased box as opposed to the “o-sleeve” slipcase that adorned the previous release. It’s no great shakes, and the artwork itself is as fun and colorful as ever. The back may have the effect of bumping up the bonus features to feeling like there’s more than there is, but that we have Season 2 at all, not least with the very fine documentary included, should be enough. Inside, the reverse of the sleeve features the episode listings…all in all very appropriate.

Ink And Paint:

Following the strong showing for Freakazoid!’s first season on DVD, the results for Season 2 remain just as good. TV material on disc is always a case of pot luck, especially given the composite videotape masters used at the time, though later shows were evidently archived on formats such as DigiBeta, going by the punchy colors.

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Only one show, Two Against Freak, drops in quality for some reason, and though even this is more than acceptable, it looks like it’s come from a composite as opposed to a component master, with some noticeable crosstalk in some areas. But all the other shows look as good as TV animation from this vintage could look given the production process, and Warners’ good judgement in giving the episodes room on the discs means compression is never an issue.

Scratch Tracks:

As before, we’re offered not just the broadcast stereo tracks but a pumped up 5.1 option too, which most of the time is very clearly superior. I questioned the need to include both options on the previous season and would ask the same question again here, but it’s not as if the images are suffering. With some other releases not including the 2.0 options, I still can’t quite see the benefits of offering two otherwise similar tracks, especially when the 5.1 is the one to go for, but they’re very lively tracks, helped immensely by composer Richard Stone’s looney tunes.

Final Cut:

The switch to single arc episodes might have been a choice ultimately preferred by the program’s makers, but as an audience member I have to point out the various padding and repetitive scenes in some shows. Nonetheless, there are more than a handful of episodes here that retain the brilliance of the first season, and those with those earlier shows will automatically want to add this new collection to their shelves. While not as groundbreaking as its debuting year, Freakazoid! Season 2 still manages to be by turns random and freaky fun.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

 

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