‘Johnny Test Season Five Premiere’: Squirreling Time Away
Johnny Test is a show that has gone relatively unnoticed since its debut. Originally a Warner Bros. series, the show was forced to switch studios and transition to Flash animation to continue production. Despite these behind the scenes troubles, it has generally done well for itself and is about to begin a fifth season.
Set in the fictional town of Porkbelly, the series focuses on 11-year-old Johnny Test, a blonde-haired trouble maker who is much like any boy his age—except for being the test subject of choice for his genius older sisters, who operate from a laboratory they built in their bedroom, and having a best friend in the form of his talking dog, Dukey.
Based on that rough description it’d be easy to write the show off as a gender-reversed imitation of Dexter’s Laboratory, a mistaken accusation many made at the time of its debut. However, for both good and bad reasons, the comparison doesn’t really hold up.
Whilst Johnny Test has similar elements, it’s more concerned with using them to set up a consistent formula. Essentially, Johnny will want to do something he shouldn’t. His sisters will hinder or help him, by way of prioritising their own experiment or allowing him to use an invention to his advantage. The situation will get worse, forcing Johnny and Dukey to resolve things under fear of the higher threat of parental punishment. End things on a cheesy joke. It might not be the most nuanced formula going, but with the right plot concept an episode can amuse and divert the viewer.
Sadly, this season’s premiere lacks such a plot. ‘Johnny Goes Nuts’ focuses on the annual Porkbelly Nut Festival, in which the residents celebrate the town’s high population of squirrels. The centrepiece of this celebration is a ‘running with the bulls’ send up, in which citizens try to outrun highly irritable squirrels. Johnny now qualifies for the minimum age and plans to enter but is stopped by his over protective mother, who points out the high (comedic) mortality rate each year. The stage is thus set for Johnny and Dukey to try to escape the house whilst avoiding a mother who always seems to be two steps ahead.
Whilst the plot is arguably standard fare for the show, it’s also one of the thinnest I’ve seen. At its best the show is a silly comedy that is more than happy to poke fun at itself and its own continuity and cast. This episode is dominated by the plot of escaping Mrs. Test and the house, with the other characters given little to do, and features a lot of fairly lazy gags. At one point the pair escape on a rocket powered lawn chair, only to be pursued by Johnny’s mother on a rocket enhanced broom. She looks like a witch, get it? Geddit?
The closest the episode comes to variation is an uninspired subplot about Johnny’s father getting trapped in a nut costume and struggling to make his way back to lead the parade for the Nut Festival. The resulting jokes are all pretty tired, with the effectively blind Mr. Test mistaking things for other things and bumping into stuff before serving up an equally flat end gag.
Another negative is what appears to be some recasting, most certainly in the case of Dukey the dog. Original voice actor, Louis Chirillo, perfectly embodied the character, providing a voice that could swing between loyalty to exasperation at the madness he is forced to live in. Trevor Devall’s new performance lacks this range and instead leaves the character as a goofy sounding sidekick. It’s never easy for one actor to replace another in animation but in particular the difference between the two voices is so blatant that I wonder if this will be easier to accept in time or not.
The last negative is really one that applies to the series as a whole but stands out more in weaker episodes such as this. The show’s use of Flash animation has to be one of the most unfavourable currently airing. Whilst it’s not as bad as the early examples of internet toons from the previous decade, shows like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic show up its awkward use here. In particular, staging of shots is often limited with a trace feeling of copy and paste often lingering. There are little details that show the animators are clearly trying (hair flowing back during the aforementioned sky chase scene and an exploding jet emitting debris, to give two examples) but it could really stand to be more fluid and daring.
‘Johnny Goes Nuts’ sadly isn’t a good start to the season. With a fairly one-note plot and obvious gags, it raises concerns whether season 5 will be a season too far. Here’s hoping it proves to be an exception and the rest improve from here. I know the show is capable of better.