I wasn’t long out of high school when a short-tempered sociopathic Chihuahua named Ren Höek and a kind-hearted but dense Manx cat named Stimpy made their debut on Nickelodeon. It was August of 1991 and it only took one episode for me to be hooked. During its run the darkly funny and sometimes surreal cartoon gave a much needed jolt to the stale state of animation, earning two Emmy nominations and gaining a passionate cult following.
The new documentary “Happy Happy Joy Joy – The Ren & Stimpy Story” eyes the creative side of the rowdy and sometimes controversial cartoon. More specifically it highlights the show’s creator John Kricfalusi, an immensely talented artist responsible for not only building the show but eventually tearing it down. Kricfalusi’s innovation and willingness to push boundaries made Ren & Stimpy household names. However it was his controlling nature and dictator-like leadership that eventually led to the show’s demise.
“The Ren & Stimpy Show” broke the mold of the generic prepackaged cartoons that appeared more interested in selling toys and merchandise than being creative and entertaining. Kricfalusi wanted to push back against what he called “the decay of animation“. Along with partners Lynne Naylor, Bob Camp, and Jim Smith, Kricfalusi co-founded the animation studio Spümcø and began creating Ren & Stimpy for Nickelodeon. From its genesis Spümcø and in turn Ren & Stimpy were artist-centric. While the writing was wacky and off-the-rails, the animation embraced a classic style with artists not just drawing but also hand painting and hand inking.
Documentarians Kimo Easterwood and Ron Cicero give a brief intro to the Ren & Stimpy craze before diving into their biggest interest – the behind the scenes talent and turmoil at Spümcø. Interviews with key studio figures give good insight into the joyous but uncertain early days and their rise to fame once the cartoon seemed to take on a life all its own. While interesting and necessary, these scenes are a little drawn out (no pun intended) and left me eager to move on to the darker side of he story.
That comes with the second season of “The Ren & Stimpy Show” as the pressures of success and expectation begin chewing away at the studio, specifically Kricfalusi. Through the words of his co-creators, Easterwood and Cicero reveal Kricfalusi’s tumble from demanding boss to abusive megalomaniac. An even darker turn comes when it’s revealed that Kricfalusi allegedly used his status to lure and groom underage girls, aspiring cartoonists, into sexual relationships. Easterwood and Cicero not only speak candidly with Kricfalusi about the accusations, but also one of his accusers Robyn Byrd. It’s disturbing stuff.
“Happy Happy Joy Joy” adds a bitter taste to what was one of my favorite cartoons featuring two of my favorite animated characters. After seeing this documentary some will have a hard time seeing Ren & Stimpy in the same light. At the same time the film shows there were many other artists and creators who were just as essential to the show’s success during and after Kricfalusi’s tumultuous reign. Still, the revelations hang a cloud over the show’s groundbreaking early days branding the once celebrated animated television series with a dark and troubling legacy.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS