Collin's been a movie critic since 2009. In real life he works in marketing and is also a novelist ("Good Riddance" published in Oct 2015).
How much is too much for you to stop appreciating a former Hollywood favorite’s work once distasteful (or even criminal) revelations about him arise? Has The Usual Suspects and House of Cards been scratched from your watchlist in the wake of Kevin Spacey’s sexual assault charges? Does Tom Cruise’s Scientology devotion knock out Top Gun and all the Mission:Impossible flicks? And what about the early-90s Nickelodeon favorite The Ren & Stimpy Show? Does your (even cursory) knowledge of creator John Kricfalusi’s “sadistic” and “psychotic” temperament and his propensity to prey on teenaged girls ruin your love of the exploits of a nutballs chihuahua and moronic cat?
The new documentary Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story, from first-time directors Kimo Easterwood and Ron Cicero, seeks to give you every bit of background and perspective you could possibly need to arrive at your own decision. The story, which has more layers than a perfectly baked mille-feuille, is described as tragic and Shakespearian by one interviewee. (Side note: the directors, frustratingly, choose not to identify the subjects with any kind of on-screen label, leaving the audience to work out who’s who based on context.)
The early half of the film, including Kricfaluisi’s animation-filled childhood and his decision to follow his dreams and open his own studio, all seem perfectly normal, as if we’re watching the second coming of Walt Disney. But when the darkness falls—after The Ren & Stimpy Show becomes the biggest thing in the early 90s—the mood of the entire film blackens with it. Within a few months of the weekly cartoon bursting onto the scene, the show’s “stylized toxicity” apparently became a vivid reflection of the mood behind the scenes.
Even cursory fans of the show are no doubt aware that Kricfalusi was fired/left in the middle of the second season after his “obsessive dictator” ways made working with Nickelodeon and his own staff impossible. Kricfalusi himself, in a refreshingly honest and forthcoming series of interviews for the film, seems to own up to his toxic masculinity and even offers a round of apologies and self-flagellation. Happy Happy Joy Joy does include gobs of Kricfalusi’s formerly put-upon colleagues—plus celebrities including Jack Black and Iliza Shlesinger—singing the man’s (and the show’s) praises while simultaneously mumbling under their breath about what a schmuck he was.
In the last half-hour, as the documentary shifts to a deep-dive into Kricfalusi’s relationships with young girls, things get darker still, as we hear not only from the man himself but also his first victim, Robyn Byrd, who came forward in the famous 2018 Buzzfeed report, as she explains how their sexual relationship began when she was just 16 (and he was 42). No charges were ever filed due to the statute of limitations expiring, but we’re all clearly left to draw our own conclusions.
While Happy Happy Joy Joy does present heaps of fascinating insight into the creation of The Ren & Stimpy Show—along with an uber-nostalgic trip down Memory Lane for those of us who could sing the “Log (from Blammo)” ad jingle in our sleep—it’s impossible to separate the monster from the mad scientist, nor should we even want to. It’s just as impossible, though, to deny the influence (and joy) that Ren and his bloated sack of protoplasm provided for an entire generation.