You don’t hear much lamentation about UPN’s cancellation of Home Movies. Then again, few people remember it existed in the first place. One of those shows so experimental and idiosyncratic that it seems like an accident when it turns up on broadcast TV, this cartoon series aired only briefly on UPN, before finding a more stable home as part of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block. There it ran for a few more years, amassing 50-odd episodes. Now those first 13, comprising the single “network” season, arrive on DVD.
Even on Adult Swim, Home Movies was sort of an also-ran compared to breakout hits like the surreal Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The adventures of precocious Brendon Small (voiced by Brendon Small), an eight-year-old aspiring filmmaker, his best friends, his single mom (Paula Poundstone for the first five episodes; Janine Ditullio thereafter), and his gruff soccer coach (H. Jon Benjamin) have a simple, family-sitcom dynamic. You might imagine how it slipped past the UPN quirk detector, until you watch it.
This is a seriously strange and ugly show. Not in spirit, but visually. Of course, ugliness is not new to network animation (recall the crude first season of The Simpsons). The characters of Home Movies are essentially crude doodles; at times, they seem to all be wearing pajamas, so vaguely defined is their clothing. Still, the animation (which would later improve, marginally) serves one of the most impressive aspects of the show’s first season: the fact that it was largely improvised. This is a rare technique in the sitcom world, to say nothing of animation. It’s not unusual for animation to take cues from voice recordings; it is unusual to forego storyboards and let improvisation shape the entire show.
The first season is practically a behind-the-scenes look at itself, as the creators and actors are plainly finding their voices. And the DVD set includes actual behind-the-scenes material, mainly interviews with the principal players talking about the process of vocal acting and interacting. Tellingly, co-creators Brendon Small and Loren Bouchard, and voice actor Benjamin are more engaging and informative in the group interview than in their individual comments.
One of the trio’s most thought-provoking observations is that Home Movies reflects a single-parent household, with “the space” left by Brendon’s wayward father filled awkwardly by his films and by his relationship with Coach McGuirk. The gruff surrogate father role is ripe for sitcom cheesiness; on paper, McGuirk might sound fated to a “very special episode” in which he reveals his soft heart at last. But the “space” is filled not with sentimentality but with Benjamin’s brilliant performance (amazingly, he also plays Brendon’s nervous eight-year-old friend, Jason, who shares neither vocal tone nor disposition with McGuirk). McGuirk’s impatience with children, his low-voiced tone of disgust and disappointment, gives the character almost shocking comic versatility—Benjamin can make almost any line sound hilarious.
One running gag has McGuirk screaming at Jeremy, usually offscreen, to stop using his hands during soccer practice. Again, this sounds like a cliché on paper, some rip-off of a Will Ferrell character. The comedy comes in McGuirk not even liking soccer, and not being a particularly good coach. Benjamin makes his pleas to Jeremy sound petty and ridiculous, even though Jeremy is breaking what McGuirk calls “like, the main rule of soccer.”
The drawings for Home Movies are as simple as they can be, but still match the vocals’ complex expressiveness. Cartoon voice acting is so deeply associated with cartoonishness (think of the seminal Robin Williams performance in Aladdin, still one of his best in any film) that the stammering, low-key style of Home Movies is almost revolutionary. (Cartoon Network’s own Space Ghost is a similar marriage of crude animation and deadpan delivery, but Home Movies plays with actual character development.) Future sitcom visionaries, this DVD set is a good place to start your research.