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The new doc Happy Happy Joy Joy questions Ren & Stimpy’s legacy

Aimed at fans, the film grapples with the art-vs.-artist debate

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ren and stimpy stand in a doorway gushing Image: Nickelodeon
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

Polygon’s entertainment team is on the ground at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, bringing you first looks at what are sure to be some of the year’s best blockbuster-alternative offerings. Here’s what you need to know before these indie films make their way to theaters, streaming services, and the cinematic zeitgeist.

Logline: Happy Happy Joy Joy - The Ren & Stimpy Story looks back at the making of the influential cartoon and the career of creator John Kricfalusi, who multiple women formally accused of sexual misconduct in 2018.

Longerline: According to former executive Vanessa Coffey, Ren & Stimpy was everything Nickelodeon needed to combat the staleness of late ’80s/early ’90s cartoons, and the complete opposite of what the network wanted out of kid-friendly content. But the concept of “Nicktoons” was simple: Hire visionary animators to bring idiosyncratic concepts to the screen. As close collaborators testify in Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood’s feature documentary debut, there was no one more visionary or idiosyncratic than John Kricfalusi.

The last decade has seen a rise in nostalgic “fan” documentaries, celebrating everything from movies (2015’s Back to the Future-praising Back in Time) to music (Taylor Swift’s own Miss Americana fits the bill) to comics (Dear Mr. Watterson, the ode to reclusive Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson). Happy Happy Joy Joy joins the crowd, interviewing animators who recall the exhilaration of working on the rebellious toon, and admirers, like Jack Black and Mad TV’s Bobby Lee, who were mesmerized by Ren & Stimpy’s painted close-ups of nipples. Littered with show clips and archival photos of the crew at work, including Kricfalusi delivering manic pitches in a tone that would make him the obvious candidate to voice Ren, the doc exalts the creator’s genius through the voices of those who knew him. Numbers back up the phenomenon status: Nick only ordered six episodes off of Kricfalusi’s pitch, but at the height of the series, one animator believes the show was producing nearly $4 billion in merchandising.

ren’s ear has a dime in it in ren & stimpy Image: Nickelodeon

In what’s presented as something of a surprise, Kricfalusi also sits down for an interview. The animator walks Cicero and Easterwood through his childhood inspirations, early ideas for shows, character breakdowns of his infamous dog and cat (“Stimpy was an abject retard with a good heart”), and his philosophies on art, which range from the value of time-consuming caricature work to the importance of sneaking pieces of poop into frames where the censors would never catch them. Happy Happy Joy Joy presents the exploding Ren & Stimpy fandom through Kricfalusi’s eyes, and explores what those reactions meant to him. But only an hour and a half in do we realize Robyn Byrd, a young Ren & Stimpy devotee interviewed for the film who tells a story about mailing Kricfalusi a letter and actually getting a response, is the same person who accused him of abuse 20 years later.

Early on, one animator describes Kricfalusi as “the best drill sergeant you’ll ever meet, and drill sergeants do need to be cruel.” The full extent of that cruelty is the final note in Happy Happy Joy Joy. Chronicling the broad strokes of BuzzFeed News’ report from 2018, Cicero and Easterwood hear from both Byrd and Kricfalusi on how the Ren & Stimpy creator leveraged his standing in the industry to establish a romantic relationship. Kricfalusi does not deny courting a then-15-year-old when he was 41, but his reflection focuses more on mistakes made than apologies offered. Cicero and Easterwood leave the details of Byrd’s story, and the stories of his other accuser Katie Rice, out of the picture.

The quote that says it all: Grappling with Kricfalusi’s influence and his abusive behavior, Robyn Byrd tells the documentarians, “Pain does create great art, but you don’t have to keep inflicting pain to create great art.”

What’s it trying to do? Cicero and Easterwood chart every moment in the Ren & Stimpy saga in a way that reassures fans that this gnarled, grotesque cartoon was just as artful as they remember. The documentary spends a good chunk of time in the weeds on the animation process, showing how Kricfalusi and his Spumco Studios crew pushed the limits in every frame. It’s not all positive; Coffey offers powerful insight into how Kricfalusi’s perfectionism and blue humor led to his firing and the implosion of the show.

john kricfalusi headshot Image: Chris Gore/Sundance Institute

But the way the documentary explores Kricfalusi’s personal life, and how he crossed the line with multiple young women, plays like an addendum. Was this the culmination of stewing in his genius for so many years? What should people think of Ren & Stimpy now? By letting Byrd tell her story, asking Kricfalusi to respond, and allowing for the other artists involved with the show to make sense of it all, Happy Happy Joy Joy reaches for an answer to whether we should separate art from artist.

Does it get there? The structure of Happy Happy Joy Joy makes for insufficient exploration of Ren & Stimpy’s legacy. The show was one of the first cartoons to carry a “Created by” card, meaning the story of Kricfalusi’s abuse is also the story of the celebrated Nicktoon. Though one animator admits in broad terms that the show is now “covered in shit paint,” none of Kricfalusi’s collaborators are asked about the abuse or his behavior beyond his tendency to be a boss with a “sadistic edge.” As the BuzzFeed story makes clear, “stories of how Kricfalusi sexually harassed female artists, including teenage girls, were known through the industry.” They are not chronicled in Happy Happy Joy Joy, save for one emotional follow-up interview with Coffey. (Worth noting: The film was produced and funded via Indiegogo in 2017, and it’s possible much of it was shot before BuzzFeed published the report on Kricfalusi.)

What does that get us? Happy Happy Joy Joy did not have to deliver a verdict on the art-vs.-artist debate, but a more successful documentary might demand conclusions from its subjects. Cicero and Easterwood seem to have an opinion, or one that fits with the first 90 minutes of the movie; even after Byrd’s emotional story, the film returns to animator interviews that remind us of Ren & Stimpy’s transformative power. That unspoken, authorial comment feels like the easy answer, and ultimately prevents the film from finding a bigger picture.

When can we see it? Happy Happy Joy Joy is an independent production that premiered at Sundance, and it’s currently seeking distribution.