Documentary Releases: Happy Happy Joy Joy - The Ren & Stimpy Story (2020) - Reviewed

It was one of the most groundbreaking animated television shows in the history of the medium.  Controversial, shocking, transgressive and frequently riotously funny, it attained an almost instantaneous cult status and forever changed the landscape of Saturday Morning Cartoons and contemporary animation in general.  Nothing like it had come before and there may well never be anything quite like it again.  

The show in question is The Ren & Stimpy Show which chronicles in episodic form the bizarre, disgusting and hilarious misadventures of a psychotic Chihuahua named Ren and his idiotic but lovable Cat companion Stimpy.  Vulgar, stupid and oddly brilliant, the show was a runaway success neither the network Nickelodeon nor the show’s controversial chief creator John Kricfalusi and his animation team Spumco could keep up with. 

Testing the waters of acceptability in mainstream animation aimed at kids, The Ren & Stimpy Show gained a degree of notoriety from Kricfalusi’s sneaking in of off color jokes past the censors which no doubt infuriated the network when they saw what the show got away with.  Including but not limited to sexual innuendo while mixing in deliberately disturbing dark humor and laced with grotesque visceral horrors, The Ren & Stimpy Show presented an edgy yet emotionally engaging cartoon that probed the depths of the human psyche while providing a creative outlet for the show’s mastermind.  While many laud Trey Parker and Matt Stone for pushing the envelope on network television animation, the concept of harder adult oriented cartoons really wouldn’t have been possible without The Ren & Stimpy Show’s demanding and painstakingly fastidious creator. 

And that’s where the trouble started.  Unable to deliver episodes on time in the show’s second season coupled with Kricfalusi’s inability to compromise with executive producer Vanessa Coffey who was forced to shelve the second season’s first episode due to being too violent, Kricfalusi was ultimately booted off the very show he created with Games Animation and animator Bob Camp resuming management of the series. 

The show continued on for three more seasons before ultimately being cancelled in 1995.  Complicating the show’s already troubled legacy even further were the actions of Kricfalusi who received his own #MeToo reckoning when it came to light he was using the brand of The Ren & Stimpy Show to lure in and groom underage girls, driving the final nail into the show’s coffin and leaving many uncertain about their adoration for the show. 

With documentary filmmakers Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood’s tragicomic and melancholy Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story, the film tries more or less to index the show’s rise and fall while addressing the white elephant in the room surrounding the show’s creator.  A polarizing, lovingly made and at times terribly sad picture, Happy Happy Joy Joy is as much about the beloved cartoon program as it is about trying to make sense of the show’s stained legacy.  Featuring interviews with nearly all involved including but not limited to Billy West, Bob Camp, Vanessa Coffey, Kricfalusi himself as well as Robyn Byrd, the film is an engaging, fascinating and ultimately heartbreaking investigation attempting to separate the art from the man behind it.

Though only so many clips from the show are included in the documentary with the infamous Happy Happy Joy Joy song mysteriously absent from the film, it nonetheless is a compelling and valiant effort from Cicero and Easterwood which functions as a behind-the-scenes look at the show’s genesis while trying to comprehend the meteoric rise and fall of the show’s creator. 

Like many others, I grew up with The Ren & Stimpy Show and watched many pale imitations follow in its gross-out comedic wake.  Years later when Kricfalusi’s behavior came to light, the show was thrust into an uncomfortable spotlight leaving many unsure of what to do with it moving forward.  Attempting somewhat unsuccessfully to put the debate to bed, Happy Happy Joy Joy in the end reminds viewers the program was a collaborative effort comprised of many artistic talents with even Robin Byrd advising fans to still enjoy the show despite the difficult history surrounding the mind who realized it in the first place.

--Andrew Kotwicki