Animation seems to be going through somewhat of a revolution right now. Everyone can go out and independently create their own cartoon series without the backing of some big bucks corporation. All one needs to do is catch Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation when it comes to town or tune into “Adult Swim” nightly to see proof of the healthy status of the animation world. With so much out there, however, a cartoon must do something original and different to make itself stand out. And what is going on over at Mondo Media, the studio responsible for “Happy Tree Friends,” is without a doubt original and different.
Starting out like the now öber popular series “South Park,” “Happy Tree Friends” began life as a series of animated shorts available only via the Internet. Created using a program called Flash, the series stars soft, round forest creatures differentiated by their pastel colors. The series quickly gained popularity and now can be seen regularly on the G4 channel or purchased by way of their recently released DVD box sets.
Try to imagine watching “Bambi” while tweaking out on an unhealthy dose of Prozac, mix in some “Final Destination,” and then you’ll come close to understanding what “Happy Tree Friends” brings to the table. The brainchild of creators Kenn Navarro and Rhode Montijo, “Happy Tree Friends” makes its name by featuring elaborate death scenes and a healthy dose of animated gore. The animation, however, is what will have you twisting in your seat with laughter. As each cute furry forest animal is dismembered, pureed, liquefied and impaled over and over again, your stomach will undoubtedly tighten in a fit of giggles.
It’s OK though, because these animated creatures aren’t real, are they? The series’ quality of animation is portrayed most notably in the characters’ detailed mannerisms and facial expressions, which are twisted and mangled exquisitely for each and every death scene. Rather than have an anvil fall on Bugs Bunny’s head and have him walk out the door with a dizzied look on his face, “Happy Tree Friends” employs characters who go on murderous, post-traumatic-stress-induced rampages and sadistic ants who slice off anteaters’ tongues with cheese graters. A huge amount of credit goes out to the creative team who has not yet managed to repeat a death scene, despite the fact that they have enough material to fill three DVDs.
The cartoon works on two of the more simplistic levels of animated film, the first of which is surprise. As you learn very early on, anything from wrecked oil tankers to disco balls can randomly appear in the middle of the forest that these creatures call their home. In other words, don’t get too caught up demanding an explanation for why that vat of acid suddenly dropped from a previously clear sky. The other is a cornerstone of animation called the plausible impossible. This sacred rule of animation is the one that allows characters to drive cars with their teeth or carve up other characters heads like jack-o’-lanterns. “Happy Tree Friends” is a great idea that has been executed well. Cute little squirrels and bunnies meeting horrific, gruesome deaths is the best juxtaposition since peanut butter and jelly.
“Happy Tree Friends” may have a hard time finding a mass audience. The graphic violence is something that people named “Dude” and “Bro” may only laugh at. One might make the argument that [[,]] once you have seen one episode, you have seen them all, but the enjoyment comes from seeing what new innovative ways the show’s creators come up with to kill off its animated stars. Artsweek only previously heard of “Happy Tree Friends” through film festivals and Spanish-language MTV. When the good people at Mondo Media decided to provide us with a complimentary set of the DVDs, we unanimously agreed on profiling this little-known cartoon. This is a prime example of the indie dream come true, as well as the power of a simple, yet strong idea taken through to fruition. The DVD box sets are out now, so be on the lookout for Flippy, Sniffles, Nutty and the rest of the “Happy Tree Friends” gang, because if you don’t, it may just mean your ass.