'Happy Happy Joy Joy' Review: Into the Dark Heart of ‘Ren & Stimpy'

The Nickelodeon show changed the history of animation forever, but at what cost?

A still from Happy Happy Joy Joy - The Ren & Stimpy Story by Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Kimo Easterwood.

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Anyone who had their eyeballs near a television in the early ‘90s had either a queasy curiosity about Ren & Stimpy or a downright obsession with the Nickelodeon animated series (cue the close-up cutaway of a foaming mouth with rotting teeth and cracked lips overflowing with drool). As unlikely as it seemed at the time, the show reinvented how animation was both produced and consumed, shattering cable ratings records along the way. Now, 25 years on, Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story is here to recount exactly how all of this happened and why the show remains an artistic touchstone today.

With the documentary, Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood make their feature directorial debut after floating around the film industry in various capacities since around the time that Ren & Stimpy started airing. They came to the subject of the show on the suggestion of their friend, the fine artist (and former Ren & Stimpy animator) Todd White, but in their 2017 fundraising pitch, they freely admitted that although they were familiar with the show, they weren’t sure the backstory was enough to make a compelling movie. Unfortunately, their vague interest and initial intuition may have been correct.

For the uninitiated, Ren & Stimpy was the brainchild of firebrand creator, animator, and voice of Ren, John Kricfalusi. Gifted with the ability to recognize talent and rally it around his own ambitions, he was able to organize a troupe of young outlaw animators. He formed Spümcø Animation Studio in 1988 and quickly set to work on what would become Ren & Stimpy. When the show took off, he became an instant and unlikely icon thanks to that simple, newly reintroduced auteurist “created by” title card that ran at the beginning of each episode. As we learn from Happy Happy Joy Joy, he was also susceptible to the power, influence, and stresses that tend to plague the roles of major public figures who struggle with mental illness.

During his brief time as showrunner, Kricfalusi ruled like a tyrant, constantly belittling his own staff while actively defying his executive overseers at Nickelodeon, who were desperately trying to conform his defiled creations — as one of the film’s interviewees astutely puts it, Ren & Stimpy was about an unlikely friendship between a dog and cat who live on the brink of sanity and hell — into something consumable for children. For his unwillingness to cooperate, Nickelodeon terminated his contract in late 1992, just two episodes into the second season. The show and some of its staff went on without him for a few more seasons, and even today the cartoon continues to loom large as an artistic influence over animation.

The backstory plays out chronologically through a limited number of archival photos, new interviews with the majority of the key creatives behind the show — in addition to Kricfalusi, these include animators and storyboard artists Bob Camp, Vincent Waller, Jim Gomez, and Chris Reccardi, voice actor Billy West, and Nickelodeon producer Vanessa Coffey — and beautifully restored clips from the series. Set against the insanity of the show’s original tone, we navigate through the formation of Spümcø, John’s infamous pitches with Nickelodeon, on through the cultural barnstorming of the show, the constant censorship battles between Spümcø and Nickelodeon, and Spümcø’s eventual disintegration.

But while Cicero and Easterwood were nearing the end of post-production, disturbing news came out that would stain the Ren & Stimpy legacy: while Kricfalusi was at the height of his fame as the showrunner of Ren & Stimpy, he used his influence to seduce then 16-year-old Robyn Byrd to be his girlfriend and eventually sexually assaulted her. This revelation clearly threw a wrench into the nearly finished documentary’s production, adding years to the project. Yet, the news actually allowed them to take stock and add some much needed depth and complexity to their otherwise pandering revelry.

Throughout the film, there are some valid attempts to tie Kricfalusi’s mental instability with the psychotic and disturbing narratives played out within his famed television show, yet there remains a lack of historical investigation beyond the headlines and an interview. Due to Kricfalusi’s unconscionable actions, Ren & Stimpy will forever be tarnished, though its influence remains. Unfortunately, for a look into a show that so cunningly mixed twisted toilet humor and extreme, emotionally raw experience, Happy Happy Joy Joy doesn’t delve nearly deep enough into the void and back again to leave either a cartoonish hammerhead imprint on the brain or a tear-soaked membrane around our swollen, bleeding hearts.