You had to be alive and tuned into pop culture in the early '90s to grasp the phenomenon of The Ren & Stimpy Show. The cartoon series, created by John Kricfalusi for the Nickelodeon cable channel, pushed the envelope in every possible way, fudging the frontier that separated adult from kid content further than The Simpsons. Matt Groening's series was barely a couple of years into its run. It played like a literate social satire on the American family, deeply imbued in pop culture and social mores. With producer James L. Brooks on board, it had a straight-forward connection with classic TV sitcoms of yore - Brooks wrote for many, including The Andy Griffith Show (1968), and created the profoundly influential The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977).
John Kricfalusi, the Canadian cartoonist / Photo by Flickr Photo: DR
In contrast, "Ren & Stimpy" was something darker and baser. Krickfalusi was more a cartoonist than a dramatist, so he went for something primal and emotional. Ren and Stimpy were a chihuahua dog and an obese cat, living together as best friends in a fantastical world where they would alternate with human beings and strange hybrid characters - a strongman super-hero type with a slice of white bread for a head, for example -. The dog was a perpetually exasperated ball of anger, usually directed towards the sweet but exuberantly stupid feline. The documentary's title refers to an infectious song deployed in an episode where Stimpy convinces Ren to be happy, if only for a moment.
Each episode contained an assortment of shorts and vignettes, tapping the madcap energy of Looney Tunes and Tex Avery, adding a childish, irreverent fascination with bodily grotesquery. As Ren and Stimpy engaged in their sometimes brutal adventures, you would get regaled with lovingly rendered inserts of boils, ingrown nails, injuries, and organic detritus at its worst. It was an irresistible combination: a shocking comedy that could engage small children and adults.
Sketched storyboards with production notes can be seen in Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story / Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures
Alas, behind the instant classic laid a cautionary tale about art and trauma. Fans are well-versed in the rise and fall of Kricfalusi. There are hardly any surprises here, but those in the know will enjoy how directors Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood draw attention to the fact that behind the singular creator lay a small army of artists, without whom probably Ren and Stimpy would not exist beyond the scrapbook of a mad genius.
“Ren & Stimpy” may be subversive, but “Happy Happy Joy Joy” is somewhat stodgy in form and execution. Cicero and Easterwood favor the oral history format, with a series of talking heads recapitulating the events they lived through. In an exasperating choice, they decide not to identify most people on camera, so you must guess who they are and their role in the drama. Sure, a text on screen is an old convention straight out of TV news, but the filmmakers are not striving towards experimentalism here. This movie is closer to a conventional documentary than an Art House film.
Atmospheric shots of a den filled with books, plush toys, and cartoon paraphernalia serve as b-rolls. At first, I thought it was an artfully staged set, conjured to provide some thematic b-roll, but it is Kricfalusi’s home. It is a telling display of trust in documentary production when a subject opens his personal space to a camera crew. Knowing the arch of his story, I was surprised to see him subjecting himself to scrutiny. You have to decide if this is an exercise in self-reflection or an extension of his hubris, much on display throughout the film.
A chorus of voices builds up the fascinating creation of the ground-breaking first season, and the myth behind the mad genius is laid bare. With disarming candor, the animators and other crew members share their conviction that pain is necessary to create great art. It feels like a bit of psychological jujitsu to live with the trauma brought by the abuses inflicted upon them by Kricfalusi. If the result is brilliant, the pain inflicted during its making is worth it. Right?
Directors Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood worked together in * Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story.* / Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
Not really. The chaotic production process yielded a revolutionary animated series but at a high human price. However, something else becomes clear: “The Ren & Stimpy Show” is an example of collaborative art. We might love to enshrine singular, the mad genius who cannot make his ideas work without his team. Studio executives are go-to villains, and not without reason - hello, David Zaslav! - but a creative business person, like Vanessa Coffey, can be instrumental for artistic and commercial success. In this case, she picked the characters from the margins of a proposal presented by Kricfalusi and commissioned him to develop a pilot around them.
The rest is history. Once the scope of its popularity downed on the suits, Nickelodeon ordered a full second season. But making 20 episodes over nine months turned out to be unmanageable for Spumco Studio, so attuned to the mercurial character of its founder. He was stripped of the property in a stand-off with the corporation. Co-director Bob Camp set up shop in a Nickelodeon-funded new studio, poaching some of the talents, and kept the show running for five seasons. It turned into a perfectly functional operation, minus Kricfalusi's demented touch.
Therein lies the creative tragedy at the heart of “Happy Happy Joy Joy,” Kricfalusi’s talent was constitutionally opposed to the corporate-sponsored cartoon production and market demands. But then again, the push-and-pull with executives was partly responsible for the delicate balance between the vulgar and the sublime, the irreverent and the commercial. Kricfalusi eventually got a hold of the characters and produced an overtly adult version for Spike TV. It barely lasted three episodes, and by the brief snippets shown here, it lasted too long. As we learn from the Hollywood studio's golden era, control can stifle creativity or make it flourish into something beautiful.
Animator Chris Riccardi, gone too soon in 2019, part of the team making The Ren & Stimpy show a reality. / Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
And then, there is the elephant in the room. I have been intentionally discrete about the most unsavory episode in the film because it might be a surprise to those not familiar with the story. So, let this be a spoiler alert, even though the events are in the public record.
In March 2018, Buzzfeed published a story with two women reporting being groomed and abused by the star animator in their teenage years. You can learn everything you need about the sordid affair here. The filmmakers get one of them, Robyn Bird, to speak on camera about the events. They go even further and directly confront Kricfalusi, who tries to explain their crime before being cornered into an apology. It’s something, but somehow, not enough.
"Happy Happy Joy Joy" is a time capsule and historical record of an influential cartoon show. Still, it also confronts the viewer with the problem of what to do with art tainted by the knowledge of the maker's worst actions. Disavowing an unsavory single creator is easy, but "The Ren & Stimpy Show" was a collaborative effort. If we toss it into the dustbin of history, there goes the work of the whole crew. The human beings who make art are as capable of doing beautiful things as of committing awful crimes.
A documentary that explores the rise and fall of The Ren & Stimpy Show (1991) and its controversial creator, John Kricfalusi.Stream Now
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