Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story
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…overlong but fascinating documentary…
It’s impossible to overstate the impact of The Ren & Stimpy Show when it dropped in 1991. American animation, that dorkiest of mediums, had long languished in a low-imagination swamp of banality, used mainly to sell toys or sugary breakfast cereal. Then, along came the adventures of a brain damaged cat and a sociopathic chihuahua and it blew the bloody doors off! Funny, weird, profane, surreal and oddly affecting, The Ren & Stimpy Show was a huge hit for Nickelodeon and creator John Kricfalusi.
A year later, with the show’s popularity reaching dizzy new heights, Kricfalusi would be fired from his own creation. Was this a case of corporate overreach, where money men couldn’t handle genius when they saw it? Well, partially. But as documentary Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story shows, the real villain of the piece was the tainted ego, the wilful hubris and the despicable behaviour of Kricfalusi himself.
The doco, directed by Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood, begins ordinarily enough. Talking heads interspersed with footage of the bonkers animation, giving historical context and behind the scenes tidbits. However, it soon becomes clear that Kricfalusi was, at best, an overly passionate boss and at worse, an abusive tyrant. Should the producers have worked harder to accommodate his vision? Possibly, but when he was making pronouncements like “I will no longer be taking notes” to an increasingly concerned Nickelodeon, it’s not hard to see why he was given the shaft.
The show continued until 1995 sans ‘John K’, but was never as good as the original block of episodes. Kricfalusi himself was given control of his characters again in 2003, with Ren & Stimpy: Adult Party Cartoon, a largely joyless slog that relied on shock tactics and lacked most of the warmth and humour that defined the original shows. Then, of course, the accusations against Kricfalusi of grooming teenage girls and sexual abuse surfaced, and the legacy of Ren & Stimpy was forever tainted.
It’s to the credit of this overlong but fascinating documentary that one of the victims of Kricfalusi, Robyn Byrd, is allowed to give her story in a frank and disturbing way. Byrd tells the audience that they don’t need to abandon the show they loved as kids and to separate the art from the artist. It’s a nice notion, and perhaps accommodations can be made over time, but it’s hard to embrace the innocent whimsy of that silly cartoon in quite the same way.
Most good things are eventually ruined by the actions of one dodgy wanker or another. The irony that Happy Happy Joy Joy illustrates so well, is that the dodgy wanker that sunk Ren & Stimpy is the very same person who created it.