Maladjusted adults all over the world are rejoicing as new life is breathed into the long-dormant Ren and Stimpy franchise, via the medium of a warts-and-all documentary that shows how life behind the scenes of a successful kids animated television show isn’t always happy happy joy joy.
If you’re too young to remember, Ren and Stimpy was an early 90s kids show that has been described as If Tom and Jerry opened a portal to Hell. It stars Ren, a psychotic Chihuahua, and his friend/housemate Stimpy, a dim-witted cat that spends much of the show as a sounding board for Ren’s abuse. The show ran on Nickelodeon from 1991 to 1996, and saw the titular tandem appear in space, the old west, and the future. It was created by a guy named John Kricfalusi, aka John K, but we’ll come back to him later.
Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story recounts the very early days in which an independent animation studio named Spümcø grew from nothing into one of the most influential agents of the so-called new wave of animation, which came about as a response to the soulless drivel they believed studios were churning out as glorified toy commercials.
For a while, things seem great at Spümcø. The group’s punk rock ethos, and us versus them mentality brought together tons of extremely talented writers and artists, many of whom had grown tired of the cookie-cutter approach to animation and instead wanted to make something unconventional and ahead of its time. Ren and Stimpy was just that. But behind the laughter and the apparent whimsy of artistic freedom, something much darker was at work. Something that would drag a dark cloud of malcontent over the production, Something, or rather, someone.
John K ruled over his crew, his artists, his voice talent, with an iron fist. The often brilliant creator spent hours belittling the work of others while obsessively redrawing cells that colleagues had presented him with as finished pieces. The movie utilises talking heads of former crewmates of Kricfalusi’s who speak openly about how badly they were treated, and how working on Ren and Stimpy was closer to a dictatorship than an artist collective.
Unfortunately, much of the rest of Happy Happy Joy Joy focuses on the negative aspects of the show’s history. The self-destruction of its creator, which ultimately ended with him being fired from his own creation, is the primary focus. Even when the filmmakers decide to throw in a comment by a celebrity fan about how funny a scene was, or how we should separate John K from Ren and Stimpy, so that we can still enjoy the finished product, it falls flat because of the gut blow you’ve just taken by finding out how much of an asshole Kricfalusi was the whole time.
If this had been the entire movie, then you could be excused for walking away feeling a little bit shitty that one of your childhood favourites was created out of such a toxic environment. However, there are darker revelations to come – and if you weren’t prepared going into Happy Happy Joy Joy, then there’s nothing that can prepare you for what comes next.
When directors Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood first approached John K about appearing in the documentary he apparently turned them down. Then, shortly after the film wrapped, Buzzfeed broke the news that former Kricfalusi girlfriend, and Spümcø artist, Robyn Byrd had been groomed by K since the age of 13, and entered into an abusive relationship with him by 16. The film also suggests that Byrd was not the only underage girl who had sought John out as a fan, looking for guidance in their career, only to be systematically prayed upon.
Seemingly seeing the film as his chance to salvage his shattered career and image, the Kricfalusi footage was shot and then added in later, creating a whole different movie, one that shifted from dark to outright disturbing. John K is given the chance to apologise to Byrd – and presumably the other women he is alleged to have done similar to, including Katie Ryce – but this feels completely disingenuous. He is the villain of his own piece. A selfish, narcissistic predator that trampled the ambition of those who looked up to him, mistreated his peers, and robbed children of their innocence.
Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story is a brilliant little film. It offers catnip for the soul, but ultimately exposes elements of your childhood as a lie. If you can separate the artist from his art, then that’s great. You can continue to watch reruns and amuse yourself with the childish behaviour you see on screen. But for as much as the filmmakers should be applauded for having the balls to release Happy Happy Joy Joy, when it’s all said and done, you’re left feeling neither of those things.