Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television and games.
Warner Bros. made a breakthrough with superheroes and animation during the 1990s. Batman: The Animated Series revolutionized television animation with its film noir, complexity and darker tone. Around the same time, Stephen Spielberg's studio Amblin Entertainment collaborated to work on spiritual successor shows to the Looney Tunes, such as Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs, for their meta humor and cast of memorable characters. It is very experimental when you try to combine these two different genres and you get a zany and fun show known as Freakazoid!
The series is about a computer geek named Dexter Douglas who transforms into a hyperactive superhero called Freakazoid and has adventures fighting a variety of supervillains.
With Batman:The Animated Series creator Bruce Timm involved, one would expect that mixing these elements would create an inconsistent tone. In fact, the show was meant to be straightforward action-adventure with comic overtones. However, Spielberg and the Animaniacs team suggested that the show should be an all-out comedy instead. It was a well-worth decision and gave the show its own identity.
Speaking of the comedy, that is where the series shines. Its non-stop use of slapstick, parodying and fourth-wall breaking makes Freakazoid! self-aware and never meant to be taken as seriously as Batman around that time. There are many memorable jokes/visual gags provided throughout the series. My personal favorite is Freakazoid satirizing the emergency broadcast system test. There will be moments where scenes would get interrupted by the announcer for "important" news, opening credits with an actress named Weena Mercator as "The Hopping Woman" (although that aforementioned character is NEVER seen in any episode) and a random background character named Emmett Nervend who appears in every episode a la Where's Waldo?. If you watch the end credits, there will be a credit containing how many times Emmett appeared in each episode. That little detail right there is subtle.
While the humor keeps us laughing, the seasons' stories themselves had a rough but progressive time with their formats. Similar to Animaniacs, the first season's format had one segment focused on the titular character while other segments featured other characters. For the stories involving Freakazoid, they easily establish the characters and their setting while providing the humor to keep balance. The two-part episode involving Freakazoid's origin is a prime example. It introduces the characters while the episode is satirized like a movie with commentary provided by then-MPAA president, Jack Valenti.
When watching the other character segments with a straight face, it would be confusing and felt like wasted opportunities or time. For example, there is a segment involving a group of mischievous lawn gnomes that are cursed to stone and would come alive at night to fight evil for redemption and lifting the curse. As interesting as it sounds, the gnomes barely did any superhero work and don't make other appearances. However, when you really think about it, it was actually meant to be a parody of Disney's Gargoyles and Freakazoid himself actually provided commentary on the sketch. As mentioned before, it helps emphasizes the show's comedic nature and not to be taken seriously. Some character segments would even be used for a punchline to a joke. There is one character named the Huntsman who gets "called into action". After a prolonged intro about the character, The Huntsman hears the call and heads to the police station. Once he does, the chief would tell him either a rookie was messing around or false alarm. Then, the character would often get frustrated. The end. While it sounds anticlimactic, it was cleverly funny.
Season Two's format was an improvement for the writing where each episode was twenty-two minutes long and kept its focus on Freakazoid. One noteworthy mention in one episode is the side characters literally appear together and ask Freakazoid their role in this season. Unfortunately, it was shorter than the first season for reasons to be explained later but the abundance of characters and humor make up for it. Out of all the episodes, "The Island of Dr. Mystico" has...the funniest out-of-context imagery you'll be hearing for a while.
"A hyperactive superhero, a gruff cop, a man with a brain for a head, an intelligent caveman, a humanoid steer, a film critic, and a German politician try to escape an island full of mutated orangutans created by Tim Curry."
...If these words can't decide how random and funny it sounds, I don't know what it is.
Anyway, the episode also provided some great character interactions between the heroes and villains reluctantly working together to escape the island. Another episode called "Hero Boy" actually made the series win an Daytime Emmy, which is a noble accomplishment. The series finale even ended on a nice note with all the cast coming together on stage and singing "We'll Meet Again".
The animation is surprisingly solid with Bruce Timm's contribution to the show. The character designs for both heroes and villains are creative while sharing Bruce's signature style. The highlight is that some characters are modeled after their voice actors, like Cosgrove resembling Ed Asner and Guitierrez is designed after Ricardo Montalban...with an eye patch. With the character animation on the human characters being more realistic, Freakazoid himself is more animated and energetic matching his personality by comparison. In one instance, there was a one-time segment called Toby Danger where it not only parodied Johnny Quest but it LOOKED like it with the the character designs being more realistically detailed and added shadows.
Like any short-lived cartoons, the show had a difficult budget where the character animation had to be limited or recycled. They would also often use stock footage. To the latter's defense, it is more beneficial to certain segments such as season one's "Relax-o-Vision" where intense moments would get replaced with pleasant imagery. It was used so much that the characters themselves humorously found this to be a stupid idea.
It would be a crime not to mention the music score and songs since the late Richard Stone was included as well. The intro song is so fast-paced and catchy that it even the near-end lyrics foreshadowed the show's fate. Again, subtle. The Huntsman's theme is also hype-inducing with triumphant horn instruments playing. Other songs used are spoofs of the Animaniacs theme and Hello Dolly!
As for the characters, they would range from simple to one-off jokes, but in a good way. Dexter Douglas is a nerdy teen who lives his bullying brother Duncan and clueless parents. But, once he changes into Freakazoid ala Shazam, he is an enhanced strong and super-fast superhero with a kooky side. His allies include a rough yet kind-hearted cop named Cosgrove, an ill-tempered Scotsman named Roddy McStew who is also Freakazoid's mentor, his girlfriend Steff, and his cowardly butler Professor Jones. For the segment characters, we have the snooty British superhero Lord Bravery, the unlucky Huntsman, the obsessive Fan Boy and the dim-witted alien Mo-Ron.
What's a superhero show without its villains? While the villain characters act more as the straight-people to Freakazoid's antics, they are unforgettable with a bit of quirks added. The Lobe is a super-intelligent genius with low pride, Cave Guy is an aristocratic yet violent caveman, Cobra Queen is a shoplifter with the power to control snakes, Longhorn is a country-music loving yet humanoid steer, and Candle Jack is a Boogey-man-like character that kidnaps people with rope because..."he's a nut". The one villain among the cast that went through a transition was Armando Guitierrez. Being Freakazoid's first enemy, he was once the president of a microchip company and plotted to take over the cyberspace. He later gained powers similar to Freakazoid and later resurrected as a half-human/cyborg...while he doesn't want to be called a "weenie" or asking someone to laugh with him. Other villains include Jeepers, an eccentric man with a watch that turns people to stone or beavers into gold, and Dr. Mystico, a mad scientist that turns his victims into mutated orangutan henchmen. It's sometimes hard to imagine who is zanier.
Even though they are not complex, the voice acting gives them more personality. Writer Paul Rugg is hilarious with his sporadic and over-the-top delivery as Freakazoid. Ed Asner's montone and less enthusiastic voice delivers huge laughs. Before his talk show career, Craig Ferguson knocks his performance as Roddy out of the park. Not to mention David Warner, Ricardo Montalban and Tim Curry being a godsend with their A-game material. Let's not forget other familiar voice acting legends like Rob Paulsen, Jeff Bennett and Tress MacNeille. Even the announcer Joe Leahy has his shining moments either off-screen and ON-screen. The show also brought in unexpected guest appearances such as Mark Hamill, Leonard Maltin, and Norm Abram. Once in a blue moon, we get treated with cameos from Wakko and Pinky & the Brain from Animaniacs.
Sadly, the show came and went too soon like any other underrated show at its time. Sure, the writing team had a difficult start with the first season and eventually got better. But, moving the show at a different time slot and poor ratings gave the show the ax. Around the same time, FOX Kids had an animated satirical superhero series based on The Tick comics that lasted a bit longer than Freakazoid! A third season was planned to be renewed but rejected for budgetary reasons. Freakazoid himself later made a cameo in Pinky & the Brain's "Star Warners" and a guest crossover appearance in an Animaniacs comic issue. As time moved on, the show became a cult following and got more attention due to reruns on Cartoon Network and Bruce Timm would often get asked from fans about the show to this day. It recently spawned a fan convention called Freak-a-Con in 2018. To date this review, no plans for a revival or reboot have been announced since Animaniacs are making a comeback on Hulu.
Overall, Freakazoid! is a silly, fun superhero cartoon that blends superheros and comedy pretty well, thanks to great cooperation of Spielberg and his collaborative crew. It would bewildering where the focus is on its format, but slowly grows into an overlooked feat. It is highly recommended for superhero and Spielberg animation fans. Both seasons are currently available on DVD. Oh, Freak out!