Psychotic cartoon characters are cute as a button

The adorable animals of the cartoon “Happy Tree Friends,” like many of their animated predecessors, do not have coherent dialogue. This suits the artistic vision of the show’s creator, Kenn Navarro.

“It would be as wrong as when Tom and Jerry spoke in their movie,” he said.

And really, it’s about what characters do – not what they say – that matters, right? If a typical episode of your show includes a hide-and-seek game that turns into a murderous manhunt when a character starts having flashbacks to ‘Nam, shrieks and screams say more than dialogue ever could.

“Happy Tree Friends,” with most episodes clocking in at a few minutes, is painfully funny (pun intended). Like many things that sink down to the physical and slapstick variety of comedy, it is best watched with friends. Unlike other adult-oriented cartoons, HTF is not replete with political commentary or pop-culture references. Chances are, though, if you appreciate shows such as “South Park,” “Family Guy,” or the fare on The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, you will like HTF. But if you are uncomfortable with violence, or think laughing at a hospitalized bunny getting chopped up in a fan is sophomoric, stay away.

What makes the show more noteworthy than your typical ultra-violent fare is its cast of characters. The stars of these brutal vignettes are cute and cuddly animals such as Cub, the baby bear, Lumpy, the dimwitted moose, and Giggles, the bubbly Chipmunk. Yup, the whole forest is here, even Nutty, the psychopathic squirrel, Lifty and Shifty, the kleptomaniac raccoons, and . Disco Bear?

These animals, however, are not guilty of committing these random acts of heinous violence themselves, but rather have been placed into a cruel world where their fragile bodies are subject to all sorts of unfortunate accidents. “The violence is the result of funny setups and situations that the characters end up in,” Navarro said.

Every episode is a classic situation, such as a holiday pageant, a ride on the school bus, or an afternoon at the playground. As Navarro puts it, “All we are really doing is taking the old Warner Bros. cartoons, like ‘Road Runner and Coyote,’ and ‘Tom and Jerry,’ to the next level.” A level where animals lose their limbs, endure searing pain and are lucky if they die quickly.

“Happy Tree Friends” started as a joke between Navarro and co-creator Rhode Montijo. According to the HTF Web site, the idea was conceived when Montijo drew a cute rabbit, accompanied by the words “resistance is futile.”

“We’d come up with the most ridiculous and gory situations for these sweet, cute characters and it would completely crack us up! It seemed like an endless pool of gags and jokes that we knew would make a great show one day,” Navarro said. And with the powers vested in the Internet, using Macromedia Flash, the show came to life as a Web cartoon.

To date, the show has more than 50 episodes in the bag, available on four volumes of DVD, and of course, the Internet. But earlier this year, the tortured creatures of HTF broke new ground, appearing for the first time on cable television. Airing daily on G4, the videogame network, the show can be watched by a mostly male, mostly teenage audience who won’t get beside themselves at the sight of outrageous violence.

“There’s a stigma in the Western world that cartoons are merely for children due to the early pioneers like Walt Disney and his crew of ‘9-year-old men’ who did animated features and shorts for kids,” Navarro said. “In Japan, animation (or anime) is just another medium for a creator to tell a story.” With shows such as “South Park” and “Family Guy” in the mainstream, Navarro acknowledges the winds of change.

“Animation is becoming more accepted as a viable medium for all content, and I think that’s great.” n

Happy Tree Friends airs during G4’s “Attack of the Show,” Monday through Friday at 7 p.m. A three-disc DVD box set and a single-disc holiday special are also available. Or just watch for free at www.happytreefriends.com

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