We've Got Hollywood Covered

‘Happy Happy Joy Joy’ Film Review: ‘Ren & Stimpy’ Doc Celebrates Animation But Shies Away From Darker Subjects

Sundance 2020: Sexual misconduct accusations against creator John Kricfalusi have forever tainted the legacy of this cult series, but the movie avoids that topic as much as possible

Don’t be fooled by the title: “Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story” may be the story of “Ren & Stimpy,” but it’s not a happy, happy story documentary, nor does it evoke joy or joy.

Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood’s film about the smash hit Nickelodeon animated series and its many artists, and series creator John Kricfalusi in particular, features interesting behind-the-scenes stories but pads the running time with redundancies. Worse, it never adequately engages with the most horrifying elements of this tale.

To watch cartoons in the early 1990s was to watch “Ren & Stimpy,” a trailblazing series about an emotionally abusive chihuahua named Ren, a good-natured doormat of a cat named Stimpy, and their gross, non-sensical, censorship-defying adventures. “Ren & Stimpy” was a critical and commercial success, crass in its subject matter but beautiful in its execution. It smashed expectations of TV animation, which had hitherto been relatively low on American networks. Plus, it was really, really, really gross.

It’s nothing short of amazing that a show like “Ren & Stimpy” — a series for little kids with episodes about pectoral replacement surgery and weepy relationships with anthropomorphic farts — got made at all. That’s the story that “Happy Happy Joy Joy” is happiest-happiest and most joyful-joyful to tell. For a long time, it’s a plucky, can-do story about a group of ambitious young artists who united under Kricfalusi to produce unique animation. A rags to riches story. A story of rock stars.

And, like any rock star biopic, the animators at Spümcø, Inc. were destined for a fall. Kricfalusi’s passion for animation, wild pitching style and extreme perfectionism, celebrated at the beginning of his career, led to abusive relationships with his employees and antagonistic relationships with Nickelodeon. He wasn’t the only artist to let his ego undermine his career but, as one of “Happy Happy Joy Joy’s” many interview subjects sums it up: “Nobody else worked harder to f–k it up than this guy.”

For nearly 90 minutes, “Happy Happy Joy Joy” is a sentimental look back at the history and significance of “Ren & Stimpy.” Cicero and Easterwood lay out the events that transpired and, just as importantly, the artistic innovations that “Ren & Stimpy” either pioneered or reimagined. Various scenes from multiple episodes are broken down in some riveting analyses of the craft, displaying how the animation geniuses at Spümcø, Inc. used elastic, off-model characterizations and extreme expressionistic storytelling to shock and engage the audience at the same time.

Unfortunately, not every aspect of “The Ren & Stimpy Story” is equally enthralling, and “Happy Happy Joy Joy” frequently resorts to sequences of multiple interview subjects saying basically the same thing, or sharing anecdotes that are redundant or go nowhere. Spümcø co-founder Lynne Naylor has one story about pickles that just gradually peters off into non-existence, which is somewhat whimsical but wholly off-topic.

What’s more frustrating is “Happy Happy Joy Joy’s” tendency to break from its narrative flow and occasionally just cut to more talking heads so they can rave about how great “Ren & Stimpy” was. That’s all well and good, but sheesh, we’re an hour into the movie and we’re all on the same page by now. The time has long since come to move on.

And the time to address the disturbing elephant in the room has long since passed by the time “Happy Happy Joy Joy” finally gets to John Kricfalusi’s disturbing relationship with an underage, aspiring animator. Ordinarily a development so incredibly shocking would be front-and-center in a documentary like this, but — perhaps in an effort to primarily focus on the “Ren & Stimpy” parts — the filmmakers haven’t just buried the lede, they’ve practically hidden the headstone.

It’s not that “Happy Happy Joy Joy” completely ignores the story; Robyn Byrd appears halfway through the documentary to talk about writing fan mail about the series, and the filmmakers pointedly leave in a candid moment where Kricfalusi lewdly licks his lips and makes uncomfortable remarks about the woman doing his makeup before an interview. But these foreshadowings don’t build organically to the film’s conclusion, nor does the film spend nearly enough time discussing how the history of “Ren & Stimpy” has been forever tainted by the actions of its credited creator.

In its final 15 minutes, at least, “Happy Happy Joy Joy” does ask some serious and significant questions about the cartoon’s legacy. Can a show with so many twisted, tasteless jokes still be enjoyed now that we know what we now know about John Kricfalusi? Robyn Byrd has a thoughtful answer, but the discussion probably demands a little more screen time than is given to Jack Black to talk about how neat “Ren & Stimpy” was when it first came out.

And since “Happy Happy Joy Joy” includes new interview footage with Kricfalusi, the filmmakers do confront him directly about his life, an opportunity he uses predominantly to excuse himself. The film concludes with a bizarre moment from the animator as he completely plays down the most disturbing parts of his life. It’s odd to give Kricfalusi the last word, and what he does with the opportunity is most unpleasant.

Cicero and Easterwood’s film plays a lot like a loving ode to a beloved children’s series that got hijacked all of a sudden by harsh reality, and it doesn’t handle the transition well. For “Ren & Stimpy” fans, the documentary has an enormous amount of value, taking us behind the scenes of a fascinating chapter in animation history. But for documentary fans, it’s a haphazardly paced and awkwardly structured film that struggles to organically incorporate each facet of the tragic “Ren & Stimpy” story, ultimately giving too short a shrift to the greatest tragedy of all.

Please fill out this field.