Sundance 2020: Happy Happy Joy Joy – The Ren & Stimpy Story

Rating: 3/4

In 1991, a cartoon debuted on Nickelodeon that would change cartoons forever. The Ren & Stimpy Show, born from the mind of John Kricfalusi and the artists of Spümcø, pushed the boundaries of acceptable child programming and the limits of animation to revolutionary results while inspiring a generation of animators and kids. Nevertheless, a shadow sketches across its storyboards because of the grotesque acts of its creator. Ron Cicero and Kimo Eastwood’s Happy Happy Joy Joy – The Ren and Stimpy Story charts the path of the show—detailing all of the artists who made the program special and their challenges—while examining the psychology components that led to Kricfalusi crafting the show and becoming a predator. 

For Ren & Stimpy enthusiasts, the most thrilling portions of Cicero and Eastwood’s documentary comes in deconstructing the origins of the cartoon. The animators: Corey Yost, Scott Wills, Bob Camp, Bill Wray, Chris Riccardi, etc.—recount the influences of the characters, from black and white films to comedy trios. They also recount the early days of working with Kricfalusi, who they speak about in referential terms. 

Described as the next “Walt Disney,” Kricfalusi was a flight of energy that had rarely been seen before. His acting of storyboards became legendary, much like Disney, and his quest for perfection toxic. Animators describe the verbal and emotional abuse they suffered under the creator while he perched himself as a God. And like most icons, the brilliance of their shine hypnotizes many for a time, until their acidic drops return their worshippers back to reality. They were outsiders ordained to take down the city walls of cable television, and they believed in their charge. Watching a band of creatives fight for artistic integrity and freedom, unspool themselves for a cause they believe in, invites the most uplifting portions of Cicero and Eastwood’s doc. 

However, the Happy Happy Joy Joy doesn’t solely bow at the altar of Kricfalusi. Incredibly, the directors talked the Ren & Stimpy creator into appearing in the documentary. He chronicles much of his childhood, one filled with multiple instances of abuse, and how it formed his ethos for perfectionism. We also receive the behind the scenes spats between him and Nickelodeon producer Vanessa Coffey, who often is left devastated at multiple parts while holding a Stimpy plush doll during her interviews. Furthermore, Cicero and Eastwood show the disintegration of Kricfalusi relationship with Lynne Neyer and later Bob Camp, and airs significant portions of the banned Ren & Stimpy episode “Man’s Best Friend.” 

Nevertheless, the most harrowing portions arrives when Happy Happy Joy Joy inspects Kricfalusi’s predatorial history of raping under-aged girls. Robyn Byrd, one of Kricfalusi’s victims, describes the acts of grooming perpetrated by the Ren & Stimpy creator. And shockingly, Cicero and Eastwood coax Kricfalusi into addressing the multiple allegations of pedophilia and abuse levied at him. The results are stomach churning and achingly horrifying, nearly destroying whatever affinity one might have for the cartoon, even as Cicero and Eastwood carefully divide the program from its creator over the course of 104 minutes. That division, which doesn’t allow for a deeper dive on allegations (they mostly take up 20 minutes) often seems one note. Happy Happy Joy Joy – The Ren & Stimpy Story is engrossing and gutsy, and tactfully executed, but could be more combative.           

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