'Freakazoid!': Best Steven Spielberg cartoon of the '90s?
If Animaniacs was the Citizen Kane of 1990s cartoons, Freakazoid! would have to be The Magnificent Ambersons — Orson Welles’ impressive but somewhat neglected follow-up. Whereas Animaniacs was a huge success that ran for a total of 99 episodes, Freakazoid! lasted a mere 24 episodes. Only years later did the eccentric superhero show become something of a cult treasure, in part due to Cartoon Network reruns that aired from 1997 to 2003.
My childhood love for Freakazoid! was a byproduct of its association with Animaniacs. Both were executive produced by Steven Spielberg and shared a similar comic sensibility. Cross pollination between the programs occasionally occurred, such as when Freakazoid, Wakko, and Brain demanded Spielberg to pick a favorite. But that’s easy, as Animaniacs was by far the strongest of the Spielberg/Warner Bros. Animation collaborations, at least in my humble opinion.
While conducting research (read: watching an obscene number of YouTube clips) for my Animaniacs item last week, I was surprised by how well that show held up — and how often its humor worked for multiple age groups. Freakazoid!, by comparison, never quite found its groove. It contained many brilliant moments, but was bogged down by a self-imposed obligation to relentlessly defy narrative conventions. Yes, Animaniacs consistently broke the fourth wall, but Freakazoid! pulverized said wall with Acme Corporation’s entire supply of explosives.
However, these are the quibbles of a 20-something looking back on a 16-year-old show. As a child, Freakazoid! rocked my world. It was unlike every other superhero cartoon on air. It delayed the requisite “origin story” until the sixth episode, in which we finally learned how the teenage nerd Dexter Douglas was transformed into the show’s loopy protagonist.
Instead, in its very first episode, the show introduced us to Freakazoid’s sidekick Handman. Now, let’s be honest — Handman was a stupid idea. Yet Freakazoid! cherished stupid ideas, and instead of ditching the Handman segment, the writers stretched it out until it became sort of awe-inspiring. That was Freakazoid!‘s calling card — pushing a silly joke to its limit, and often beyond. It’s why the MPAA president Jack Valenti interrupted a story to explain the movie ratings system, and why we received episodes that were presented in both Scream-O-Vision and Relax-O-Vision.
But what I remember most fondly about Freakazoid! — besides its catchy theme song — was the eye-patched villain Armando Guitierrez. Gleefully voiced by the late Ricardo Montalban, Guitierrez appeared in only five episodes, but stole the show every time with his verbose monologues and peculiar tangents. Specifically, I recall the exact moment when I thought Freakazoid! was possibly the greatest thing in the world: When Guitierrez decided to interrogate Dexter’s cat.
So even if Freakazoid! ultimately fell a bit short of some other Spielberg-produced cartoons, at least it gave us Guitierrez. And even made the guy dance. (By the way, if you’re wondering about this story’s headline, wonder no more.)