Each episode of "Happy Tree Friends" (StudioWorks Entertainment) features cuddly bunnies, big-eyed squirrels and rascally raccoons with names like Toothy and Giggles. They frolic and skip through a confectionary romper room of cheery colors and capricious adventures. Alas, playtime always ends too soon, as the Friends invariably wind up dismembered, disemboweled or otherwise mutilated.
Evoking shades of "Itchy & Scratchy," the disturbing series gives a homicidal spin to the "Hello Kitty" school of schmaltz with an unbelievably creative hodgepodge of torture devices. My favorites almost always involve Lumpy, a farmer-tanned blue moose who "accidentally" slices up two shady raccoons and gives an annoying Girl Scout an eyeful of antler.
San Francisco animators Rhode Montijo and Kenn Navarro launched "Happy Tree Friends" as a series of Internet shorts in 2000. The site's steady following led to the Happy Tree Friends: Volume 1 -- First Blood DVD early this year. This month the filmmakers release the Second Serving, with 19 episodes and a brutal but habit-forming bumper crop of bonuses. The best: a brilliantly sarcastic mockumentary on the making of the cartoon, with the creators satirizing the dot-com bust and portraying themselves as "Behind the Music"-style expired superstars.
Though I gleaned a certain visceral pleasure from "Happy Tree Friends" -- and found their devilish holiday-themed "Frosty Kringles" skits freakishly satisfying -- one extra proved even more fascinating than the sum of the single-joke series. The premiere episode of "Buddhist Monkey" pits an almost-enlightened primate against a band of serenity-smashing ninjas. The inspired short, with hints of "Samurai Jack" and a T-shirt-ready title character -- leaves us longing for more.
"Happy Tree Friends" was included in this year's Spike and Mike Sick and Twisted Animation Festival, which helped launch the likes of "Beavis and Butthead" and "The Powerpuff Girls." Perhaps Lumpy, Toothy and Giggles will eventually see similar success. After the hell they've been through, they deserve it.
Those who look forward to the Center for Puppetry Arts' annual Spooky Puppet Horror Show will lap up another recent release: Puphedz: The Tattle-Tale Heart (Elite Entertainment).
A mixture of puppetry, digital animation and live action, the 27-minute film introduces a troupe of storytellers who mix Vaudeville-style theatrics with macabre subject matter.
The premiere outing updates Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," transforming the story of a guilt-ridden psychopath into a modern fable of an awkward roommate situation gone horribly wrong. Action revolves around four meticulously crafted wooden puppets with a discernable influence from the Charlie McCarthy camp. Though the acting can be a bit stiff (heh heh), Puphedz features moments of sharp dialogue and devious double-entendres. A Tim Burton-esque animated dream sequence also delights, with hints of a warped aesthetic ripe for development.
As expected, The Tattle-Tale Heart's final act goes for the gore with gusto. Anyone who's read the story can guess that the old man's deformed eye -- shown here as a hypnotic spinning marble -- will soon enough be gouged out, and the subsequent splatter fest seems both gratuitous and inevitable.
In Puphedz and "Happy Tree Friends," the overstated carnage aims more for shocks and gags than real chills, but they may be the perfect nightcap after handing out candy to hordes of ungrateful crumb-snatchers.
The Watcher is a weekly column on television, DVDs and other small-screen delights.
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