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"Fanboy & Chum Chum": Better Than "Planet Sheen"

I sat down to watch this new release of Nickelodeons show Fanboy & Chum Chum with a fair amount of trepidation. I’ve never seen a DVD with a more off-putting cover: The ugly main characters shoved at our faces at an angle, mouths agape in a horrible facsimile of genuine cartoony zaniness, and holding homogenous stock poses over a weak, blue, comic book starburst. The theme song didn’t leave me feeling any better: The CGI characters dance around like poorly rendered demons while an incoherent and obnoxious song plays loudly in the background. After an introduction like that I was all ready to trash the show; so it is with admitted disappointment that I am forced to say … It’s actually not that bad.

In fact, in certain parts it’s really good. For instance, I had to revise my original opinion of the character designs after watching them in motion. The TV-level CGI is horribly ill-suited for expressing character, and a lot of the background characters are little more than stretched-out ovals and circles, which makes them ugly. But in other places there is more genuine effort—in the manic energy behind Fanboy’s spindly design, for instance, or the creakiness of the evil janitor’s. It never completely works—those CGI faces just have too much trouble being expressive (I think it’s the mouths, which look like bottomless pits), and the title-cards and character sketches suggest the show would have looked better in 2-D—but it’s still some of the best CGI I’ve seen yet on television. The animation itself contributes a lot. It’s snappy and energetic, perfectly suited to the series’ abundance of clever visual gags. The show pays far less attention to background details (a subject CGI is already known to excel in) than such competitors as Jimmy Neutron do, and concentrates instead on movement and design. It’s an ambitious decision that I think pays off in the long run.

There’s a lot of standard cartoon “business” in the show, but it’s all funny and organic, and nothing feels nearly as homogenous as the show probably looked on paper. In fact, the sheer number of visual gags is a minor breakthrough in a format that has been increasingly valued for its realism. There are some scenes here—like Chum Chum latching on to the top of Fanboy’s head and drinking a slushy through it, or the duo being reduced to a pair of huge eyes while being twirled around by their capes—that makes clear that the people behind the show have seen a classic cartoon or two.

Unfortunately, Fanboy falters in the essential writing department. For every great idea or gag—like the evil Palpatine-esque janitor in The Janitor Strikes Backs, or Chum Chum being used as a digital pet in “Trading Day”—there are a million jokes that are either just bewildering, or that fall flat for other reasons. There’s a lot of problems with structure. The episodes tend to grind to a screeching halt, and at times the energy behind the show gets to be a little too much, pushing events from funny to obnoxious. There is a lot of great voice work from Dyana Liu (as a hyperactive schoolgirl), Nika Futterman (making familiar squeaks as the adorable Chum Chum), and David Hornsby (summing up just the right amount of enthusiasm for Fanboy), but they’re not always given the right material. Hornsby in particular sounds almost like he’s (badly) ad-libbing some lines.

The show is at its best when it’s exploring the differences between the world Fanboy and Chum Chum live in and the world where the rest of reality resides, and at its worst when putting its characters into painfully over-done sitcom scenarios. “Fan Vs. Wild,” in which they hike to the top of a mountain that is actually the local convenience store, is delightful, but “Chimp Chomp Chumps,” in which the local generic bully (who is made slightly more interesting than usual by being a homage to John Travolta) is forced to become the duo’s servant, is debilitating. If the people behind the show continue to take it in the former direction, instead of the latter, this could become a very good series. As it stands now, thought, it’s still a lot better than Planet Sheen.

The DVD comes with a selection of episodes from the first season of Fanboy & Chum Chum, as well as a series of shorts based on the show and the pilot episode of Planet Sheen.

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