Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story (2020)
Written by Ron Cicero
Directed by Ron Cicero & Kimo Easterwood
I was ten years old when Ren & Stimpy debuted, but I was never anything close to a fan. This was simply because I lived in a rural area that didn’t even have cable lines running to the houses on my street. We were a single income household with four kids, so my parents didn’t really see a value in paying for satellite service either. So for me, this whole phenomenon passed me buy despite my being the right age to become enamored with the series.
It’s bizarre as a person who felt they were incredibly attuned to pop culture growing up to have such a blank spot for such a massive cartoon. I always knew bits and pieces about Ren & Stimpy and definitely saw shows influenced by it when I got the chance to watch Nickelodeon at my grandmother’s house. I would see shows like Spongebob or Rocko’s Modern Life, and they were good. I just never had the opportunity to really absorb it all.
Ren & Stimpy were partially created by John Krickfalusi, the head of the animation studio Spumco. As an adult, I realized I had encountered Krickfalusi’s work in another venue, Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures. This was a Ralph Bakshi production, but Krickfalusi was the senior director in the first season. You can definitely see his style present in the series with incredibly rubbery characters as they express considerable melodramatic emotion. The show also incubated creators like Bruce Timm (The Batman: Animated Series), among others. I was a little surprised that there is zero mention of Mighty Mouse in this documentary, but the filmmakers must have decided to keep their focus more narrowed. However, I think it can be argued that the documentary is as equally about the cartoon show as Krickfalusi, so leaving out such a big stepping stone felt odd to me.
We do get lots of interviews with every Spumco person imaginable plus former Nickelodeon executives who oversaw the series. As someone who had the most minimal knowledge about Ren & Stimpy, I walked away very informed about how it was made. The series is credited with making a “Created by” credit standard in animation. You can see that across Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network as creators like Pendleton Ward and Rebecca Sugar are given a big marquee at the start of their shows. From a creator’s rights perspective, Ren & Stimpy accomplished a lot.
The documentary also spends time reflecting on Krickfalusi’s role as the head of the production. While being an artistically visionary creator, he also seems like an insufferable ass and degenerate. The labor abuses heaped on his staff were pretty rough, though he does have a valid point when he tells them they are more creatively free at Spumco than working at a bland animation mill like Hanna Barbara. That said, his demand for a certain level of product while refusing to compromise on pretty horrific elements like George Liquor led to his disentanglement from the show.
I was pleased that the documentary didn’t hide from the sexual abuse of minors that Krickfalusi engaged in during the late 1990s. There was one adolescent female fan of Ren & Stimpy who wrote to Krickfalusi, and he went on to groom them, gaining her parents’ trust, and moving her out to Los Angeles when she was sixteen with promises of a career in animation. She did get a job with Spumco, but the cost was his controlling torment for five years until she was able to summon up the strength to leave. During that time, he sexually abused and physically abused her. Krickfalusi is disgustingly unapologetic and tries to frame it as a horrible misunderstanding between them when pressed by the interviewers. It’s clear from his wardrobe and the noticeable hair dye he’s using that Krickfalusi is an insecure man, caught in a desperate need to remain “cool” but also unable to tackle a single psychological issue he clearly suffers from.
I can’t say I walked away from this doc with a strong desire to sit down and watch Ren & Stimpy. I am more intrigued due to what other creators involved in the series have to say about the themes and ideas in the show. Perhaps, I might one day watch it and do a review on here. It’s difficult, though, as one creator shares, even he is disgusted by the series after learning about Krickfalusi’s behavior with underage girls. He says the show is now tainted by this and something he’s lost his appetite for.