Friday, August 12, 2011

Tak and the Power of Juju - Shrink a Dink

Time to talk about the big Nicktoon sensation that never happened, Tak and the Power of Juju.

Back in the early 2000's, Nickelodeon had been releasing a series of video games based on their then-upcoming show that was being produced in-house at that actual Nickelodeon studio. The games were decent (I've played the first two, and while not amazing, were a lot better than you would expect a Nickelodeon game to be) but they were all building up for something huge. Every single one of those games was teasing the upcoming release of the next big Nicktoon, the next big Rugrats, Nickelodeon's first fully CGI animated show, their 30th Nicktoon, and generally supposedly their biggest, most awesome idea for this decade.

...and no one watched it when it came on and now Nick knows not to hype their cartoons so much anymore. A valuable lesson.

But hey, it had more fans than Mr. Meaty at least.
The show never found an audience and was quietly cancelled after one 26 episode season. Now, no one really remembers this show's actual existence and it's extremely hard to find this show now. Now, normally a lot of the shows or movies I watch can be easily found on Youtube or, occasionally, on some Russian site located off of Google video. Not this show. Currently, the only way to see this show for free is to either do some shady backdoor Internet dealings with people who own fuzzy, video camera recordings off a TV screen of the show or to hunt down clips on the actual Nickelodeon website.

...course, there's also Amazon Instant Stream and a small DVD of the show, but I don't exactly want to plunk down money on a show that I've never actually seen.

This show's episodes were in two 11 minute segments an episode format, and after some hunting down, I finally found an entire episode. Instead of doing one of the earlier episodes like I try to do whenever I talk about a show, the episode I managed to find was a part of one of the last episodes aired before the show got axed.

So with that being said, let's see how this show ended its forgotten run with its strange tale of Spiffles, Phobia Jujus, and Grongo Snakes. And, if you have no idea what the hell I'm talking about, then that makes two of us. Watch the strangeness unfold and nearly wreck existence in...

Shrink a Dink

Knowing their audience and hoping to be current, the show decides to make reference to toys
whose popularity peaked in the 80's
Airdate: November 15, 2008

Availability: Barely Available

So the episode opens inside a sparsely rendered cave with some creepily smooth looking tarantulas (good going, CGI department) and then we find...okay, stop. Stop. STOP. What is that. What the hell am I looking at here.

One is a genius,
The other's insane...
Wow, only four seconds into the cartoon and already I'm deeply flabbergasted, disturbed, and flummoxed. My thesaurus is getting a good work-out too. Sooo yeah, let me try to explain this as best as I can, since that's what this blog is for. A purple floating brain that talks (I love how my blog has topics of discussion like this) is leading the obese chief of the mystical Pupununu Tribe into a dark cave in order to face his fears. Speaking of fears, be afraid, readers, because it's only going to get stranger from here. 

The chief resists, because hey, I would too if some incomprehensible talking brain that levitates through sheer force of will was ordering me to enter a dark, scary cave.The brain says "The only thing to fear is fear itself!" right before some hideous monster hilariously eats the leader of the tribe off-screen. So, 15 seconds into this episode and I saw a major organ commit regicide. Why didn't this show have more fans?

And then the chewed wad of bubble gum floats over to a previous victim, an old man trapped in a pot. See, because he's afraid of clay pots. The floating bag of neurons even delivers a stinger of a line, "It's not terror, just terracotta!", in response to this old man's inexplicable phobia. Yeah, this is actually happening. I feel like, unlike my previous posts, the reason I'm posting screencaps of this episode is so that no one thinks I snapped and I'm hallucinating all of this.

Well, I'm just shy and scared in this place
I'm just a fish outta water from outer space
You can see that the trip has left me tired and drained
So why don't you be a pal and bring me some BRAINS!
But then we learn from Tak that apparently this thing made of pure horror is Phobia Juju and every year he shows up to their village and makes all the inhabitants face their fears. See, in this show, the tribesfolk can call upon these magical, strange creatures from the Juju Realm called Jujus, and each Juju has a special ability or quirk based on their name. Phobia Juju's power is to summon what you're most afraid of and to sound like the Sassy Gay Friend. He also has the power to be very very unsettling. It's probably the brain stem.

But then Tak immediately sets up the plot of this cartoon by getting all overconfident and saying that he has no fears. I guess if exposed brain matter barely gets a reaction from you, you can handle anything!

"... well, that's just, like, your opinion, man."
But then Jeera (the female main character who may or may not be in love with Tak, come on, look at her) says the words "Grongo Snake" to taunt him and Tak screams in an overly exaggerated fashion and jumps on some wandering cave kid. Gee, I wonder what Phobia Juju will summon for Tak, thus creating the main conflict of this episode?

Slapstick: So easy a caveman can do it.
However, this cartoon apparently likes randomly weirding me out and making me question my own mental stability, because right after that somewhat cliche bout of physical humor, Jeera randomly says "Look, a Spiffle!" and the camera pans down to this thing.

You lost me, cartoon.
Apparently in this jungle, they have Spiffles, which are fluffballs with little antennae that coo and purr. I can't help but wonder if this is a very obvious reference to Star Trek's Tribbles. Also, since something cute, fluffy, and harmless looking has just appeared in a cartoon, you know that's only going to lead to it secretly being something dangerous. But not to give away the plot or anything.

"Hey, no fair! I want one!"
But then Phobia Juju teleports out of nowhere, and appropriately scares Tak. Hey, can you blame him? The brain's freaking me out too. Seriously, just think about it. It's a floating, talking brain, something that shouldn't exist in our world, that can teleport and phase through solid matter and it knows your fears. Normally when something of this nature appears on television, there's horror movie strings and it's ripping people apart with its psychic powers.

I know he's making a stereotypical CGI scared pose, but come on, look at that thing.
I'd do the same thing.
We learn from Scary Levitating Nightmare that Tak is the last person in the village to face his fears. Phobia Juju says for them to just get it over with and then he'll be "toodling off to Toodletown". Another quirk this character has is that he always has a fear-related saying that he can just pull out of his brain, on account his whole body is a brain. "If you get it over with, it can get over with you!" it says, which causes Tak to respond with "Me no have-y fear-y! Okay-ee?" Geez, Tak. It's been pretty established that Bloodcurdling Horrorshow can speak perfectly good English.

"Please don't eat me, scary braindemon."
He runs off while the brain says "You want the sweet honey of life, you gotta kick fear in the beehive!", and instantly I added this phrase to my dictionary of fun things to say. Then we get a chase sequence which only cements the fact that Phobia Juju is quite possibly the scariest thing I've seen in a CGI Nicktoons show. Tak is swinging through the jungle on vines and this unnerving floating organ silently appears on-screen. There's some slapstick with an elephant but that doesn't change the fact that this brain can apparently pursue its prey at alarming speeds.

Tak should call Freakazoid if The Lobe won't leave him alone. Just sayin'.
And then we get a series of deeply unsettling situations. Tak is in a random spot, trying to hide, and Phobia Juju finds him. I'm not sure if this is supposed to be funny, because all it's telling me that once Phobia Juju picks a target, there is no escape. I don't care if he says "Every time you fear it, you lose a little spirit!" in a chipper tone. He's frightening me.

"Your heart will explode."
Tak finally gives up and agrees to tell the Specter of Fear what he's most afraid of in hopes that the demon will leave him alone. Course, Tak has to make it hard for everyone by lying and saying he's afraid of Spiffles. Good going Tak. This is when we learn that Spiffles like to attach themselves to trees and, to be frank, I'm starting to buy into what the cartoon's selling me because they do look kind of adorable. I have to wonder how they eat if they have no visible mouths though, but the moment I start questioning this, this blog is going to turn into a scientific journal on the life cycle of Spiffles (Spifflology? The Study of Spiffle?) and we don't need that.

The Lobe questions this, and Tak responds that Lok is afraid of his own thumbs, and then the cartoon, imitating Family Guy for a brief moment, cuts to some big dumb-looking warrior guy screaming at his own thumb. Maybe it's the fact he's voiced by Patrick Warburton (aka Kronk from Emperor's New Groove), but this honestly got a laugh from me because the scream is perfect.

And then this show just gets downright preposterous. The Juju pulls out a Spiffle out of nowhere and shouts "Touch it, Tak! Touch the Spiffle!". There's some theatrics involving Tak really failing at pretending to be afraid of the cuddly little ball, but really, I'm just amazed at this scene and how little it makes any sense. After all, I'm watching some sentient brain that can levitate holding a orange and yellow striped puffball with eyes to a little tribal kid and urging him to touch it. There's weird and then there's just downright unnatural. Guess where this show is.

When Tak realizes how bizarre his life is, he goes mad from the revelation.
After it looks like Tak conquered his fears of living puffballs with stripes on them, Phobia Juju responds with "When you face your fears, your fears no longer have faces to fear!". Geez, psychologists who deal with patients with phobias should watch this episode just so they can learn from Phobia Juju and say these lines of encouragement.

The Terrifying Brain Monster thankfully leaves, but not before being unsettling and revealing to us that it can just magically pop in-between dimensions just like that with its psychic abilities. I guess there's a reason why the tribesfolk tolerate this beast instead of trying to slay it; none of them would stand a chance against this thing of cosmic horror.

"Cower before my true form! Bow down before the god of death!"
Course, right after he leaves, Tak decides to be a total moron and say out loud that he sure hopes Phobia Juju doesn't find out about Grongo Snakes. However, before he does that, he decides to be a total asshole and throw the Spiffle right at the rock behind it, squishing it and probably permanently damaging all of its tiny internal organs. That double dose of hubris and animal abuse (are Spiffles animals?) can only mean that he's going to get his comeuppance pretty dang soon. And of course Phobia Juju overheard him, because he is all-knowing and all-powerful.

It isn't a cartoon without innocent little animals being killed onscreen.
We end up at Tak's hut, which looks like a stereotypical tribal tiki hut complete with obese stone heads that look like Squidward's house before the Atkins diet. He wakes up, feeling refreshed that he totally outsmarted that cosmic being of mass hysteria, until he finds a Spiffle in his room. Or, rather, a Spiffle falls from the ceiling and lands in his mouth.

Big deal, my cats like to do that all the time and it's nothing special.
That's when we find out that Spiffles can be dangerous. Anyone who's seen a Tribble-like creature pop up in a cartoon should've totally seen this coming. How are they dangerous? Well, apparently they can keep on growing...and that's about it. They're still passive, cuddly creatures, but they can get massive and accidentally crush you in the most adorable death ever. Not sure what triggers the Spiffle growth sequence (Saliva? Defense mechanism to the Spiffle thinking it was going to get eaten?), but from the way the other inhabitant acts all calmly about this, apparently it's a normal occurrence where they live.

"Huh, so that's why you're not supposed to feed them after Midnight."
Tak throws the giant fuzz of death outside, and it grows so big that it becomes an Indiana Jones prop and starts flattening random villagers. This goes on for quite some time, pulling out every cartoon trope in the book. It flattens some women saying that "she would be crushed" if something happened to her new hairdo and it flattens some random melon cart while the guy is saying "get your fresh mangoes", showing us that it only targets the people that make a cliched slapstick-related target out of themselves.

That puffball is making me crave orange and lemon flavored sherbert.
The Chief of the tribe (who is surprisingly alive for someone who just got eaten by that unseen cave monster earlier on) is understandably upset, so he asks for someone to stop the Spiffle. Tak offers to help and helps in the best way he can; he shoots it with a magic death ray from his Balance Druid Staff. Geez, not cool!

"Eat death, fluffy cute animal that doesn't mean to harm people!"
Luckily, the Spiffle is unaffected by magic (which is good, because in addition to attacking the Spiffle, Tak also attacked everyone it was attached to), and we learn from Tak's uncle that the intense cuddliness of a Spiffle renders it immune to magic. And we get a priceless line from Tak. "What? Cuddliness defeats magic?" Well, duh, Tak. Anyone that has played Banjo-Kazooie can tell you that much.

Even though it's crushed several people, I still kind of want one.
I'd use it as a beanbag chair.
Aaahh yeah, here we go, the point of the episode is upon us, because the only thing that can get rid of a Spiffle is its natural predator. Hell yes, the forecast says it's raining plot points. You get three guesses what the Spiffle's natural predator is and the first two don't count.

"Curse you, dramatic irony! CURSE YOU!"
So yeah, now Tak is out in the jungle, searching for a Grongo Snake. He's really freaked out, saying things like he's bland-tasting and shooting at anything that moves. I'm sure, considering the reactions of everyone in the village and how random people pick on him for being afraid of Grongo Snakes, it's just some small, tiny snake that couldn't really eat him, right?

Apparently not, because we finally DO see a Grongo Snake, it's the size of a freaking house.

And, compared with the rest of the cartoon, really poorly rendered.
Okay, really? THIS is why everyone was making fun of him? Everyone thought it was hilarious that Tak is afraid of a dragon-sized reptile that can potentially kill him and eat everything he knows and loves just as an afterthought? I think it'd be pretty reasonable to be afraid of this thing! It'd be like someone in Jurassic Park pointing and laughing at someone for being afraid of velociraptors. 

So anyways, the Grongo Snake chases Tak, and I have to wonder if Nickelodeon handed the animation of the Grongo Snake to some summer interns because it moves so stupidly unbelievable compared to the rest of the episode. None of its animation is natural. You have to really see it in action to get the full effect, but let's just say it moves more like something animated by Video Brinquedo (if you don't know who I'm talking about, you are very very fortunate) than a studio with an actual budget.

Sometimes the snake doesn't even connect with the actual ground.
Back at the village, the Spiffle is destroying more things that are ironic, like a newlywed's first hut he built for his wife. Not sure why we had to cut to this since it just tells us what we already know; the Spiffle is huge and it's destroying random people's livelihoods and every material possession they own.

So after 20 seconds of pointless, we're back at Tak and the Grongo Snake. After this, the show seems to follow a pattern. It has Tak and the Grongo Snake interact with each other, and then we cut for just five seconds to show that the Spiffle is still, in fact, destroying stuff. Grongo Snake, Spiffle, Grongo Snake, Spiffle. After a while of this, I was left wondering when the show was going to get to the point.

Devon's still angry that they never made a Quest for Camelot 2.
There's more chasing and attempts to eat Tak from the Grongo Snake, which leads me to wonder one thing. HOW is the Grongo Snake the Spiffle's natural predator when normally, a Spiffle fits in your hand? The Grongo Snake seems a lot more content with eating people than it does eating tiny, cute puffballs the size of a human fist. Do Spiffles reproduce so quickly that this snake just regularly gobbles up like twenty million of them every day in order to keep its hunger satiated? We've only seen one Spiffle blow up to gargantuan sizes so it can't be so common of an incident that nature had to evolve some giant predator to eat them, right?

"Ha ha, Tak's afraid of Grongo Snakes! What a coward!"
FINALLY, after all of that unnecessary build-up, Tak ends up at the village. What helpful advice does his friends give him? "Run faster". Really? That's all you're going to do, Tak's friends? Tell him to "Run faster" and then just stand there?

I think he knows that, guys.
Tak does some running faster, just like his friends said, and then he literally runs into the Spiffle. As expected, the moment the Grongo Snake sees a giant house-shaped puffball full of delicious, soft meat that just melts in your mouth and goes down easy, it decides to chase the Spiffle instead. Hahahaha, that cute, adorable, squeaking Spiffle is going to be horribly devoured!

Yes, this is exactly what I think of when I picture a cartoon filled with
jungles and tribal shamans.
But then, just when you thought this episode has exhausted its supply of whimsical insanity, guess who shows up again. I'll give you a hint; it has bloodshot eyes, laughs in the face of our feeble laws of physics, and feeds on the screams of children.

"Hello! I'm here to harvest your soul!"
Phobia-Causing Juju laughs at the pain and the destruction surrounding him like heaven's glow and lets Tak know that he totally set the whole thing up. Tak's reaction? "What? mean I...but, the snake....I...AAAAAAHHHH!". Watch it, Tak. He probably feeds off of your confusion and fear.

"Yes, Tak. Give in to your anger. Your rage gives me sustenance."
Tak says that he didn't face his fear, he ran away, which causes the horrendous braindemon to chuckle and say that sometimes the best way to face a fear is to run away! He then turns to examine the carnage he's wrecked on this peaceful village and calls it another success story. I have to wonder how this monster hasn't enslaved all of humanity yet.

The cosmic diety of pure disquietude laughs, says "See you next fear!" (that pun hurts, geez), no doubt filling all of his victims with terror and agony...and then is promptly eaten by the Grongo Snake. Yes, this really happens.

And then, I swear, the episode ends right then and there. Yes, it ends with a giant, poorly-animated snake eating a minor deity.

Although the cartoon has one more surprise for me waiting in the credits. Not only was the Grongo Snake not, in fact, making stock snake sounds like it guessed it did, but it actually had a voice actor. The voice actor?

Wait, there was a unicorn in this segment? WHERE?
That's right, that terrifying snake was voiced by BENDER. How's that for random trivia?

The Moral of this Cartoon
The only thing to fear is fear itself...and cosmic floating cerebellums with bloodshot eyes and exposed brain stems that can summon every little thing that scares you the most. Yes, gentle readers, even your tiny soul is doomed the moment this frightening god visits our dimension and tries to "heal" us.

Final Verdict
Let me be the first to say that I don't automatically hate on cartoons just because they were made after a certain time period or because they happen to be made in CGI. And looking at this objectively, I'd be risking hatred from my fellow animation peers when I say this isn't terrible. In some ways, it's actually pretty good.

But it's not the best Nick cartoon out there. It's merely neither here nor there. It didn't fill me with joy or fill me with hatred. It just existed.

The good parts: The animation especially in the humans (compare this to Jimmy Neutron), the sort of weird whimsical magic used in this cartoon and how it gives variation in the plots, the voice-acting especially in Tak and Lok.
The bad parts: The plots, the whimsical stuff is just there instead of really explained.

But the parts I did like seemed to outweigh the parts that I hated, so I could go out on a limb and say that I sort of kind of like this cartoon. But not enough to be a fan. It probably didn't deserve the fate that it got when there's a bunch more CGI shows that are more terrible and annoying than it, but I can't bring myself to be too hurt about its cancellation.