What They Say:
HAPPY HAPPY JOY JOY is a feature documentary exploring the rise and fall of one of the most influential animated series in the history of television. It’s the story of a group of talented and dedicated artists whose incredible work brought to life two of the most beloved characters of all time – Ren and Stimpy. It’s also a cautionary tale of artistic genius gone awry. The controversial creator of the groundbreaking show, John Kricfalusi, both caused and experienced trauma that deeply affected his work and relationships. Through archival footage, show artwork and interviews with the artists, actors and executives behind the show, co-directors Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood artfully illuminate the joy, beauty and lasting impact of Ren and Stimpy, as well as the dual sides of the show’s creator, a man who is both a brilliant animator and storyteller as well as a deeply flawed person.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
I distinctly remember the first time I watched “Ren & Stimpy.” As a young child who was very much on the spectrum, I remember my first viewing of the show being an extremely annoying experience in terms of plot, character development, and what I considered to be “funny” back then. Yet it was also weirdly artistic and different, a feeling that didn’t resurface again until years later when I would watch “Sailor Moon” and “Dragon Ball Z” on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block. The first episode I saw was the one that contained the musical number “Happy Happy Joy Joy,” a song so irritating and stupid there was nothing else a young seven-year-old could do but laugh at the absurdity of it all. It was, in fact, the sequence that made me realize that “Ren & Stimpy” – idiotic as it came off – was secretly the work of a mad genius.
Watching the scene made me want to quote Roger Ebert when he famously described one comedy as “[something] so stupid, only truly smart people could have made it.” It is with the approach that I admire “Ren & Stimpy” as art (but dislike it as an actual show) that the new documentary “Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story” seemed right up my alley. This was the kind of behind-the-scenes feature that we rarely see due to the subject matter. While it’s common knowledge that “Ren & Stimpy” was a kid’s show on Nickelodeon, this is one of those facts that becomes all the more bizarre the more you think about it. You remember the gross-out gags, homosexual references, and violence, and you just sit there thinking “dude…this was a show on Nickelodeon” over and over in your head. It’s crazy to think this was ever considered something that was going to be viewed by children (especially since DVD sets warn the buyer that the content is only appropriate for ‘Mature Audiences’).
It is this crazy thought that seemed to have inspired the makers behind “Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story,” as they seem to have just as many questions on how something so brazenly gross was able to get on the air in the first place. For people who do consider themselves fans of the show this is likely to be something of a God-send, as we see rarely behind-the-scenes footage of children’s shows during its development process (and many jokes that had to be cut due to being ‘too hot for TV’). Voice actors, writers, and directors share personal stories about episodes they enjoyed working on, and they all seem amazed that what they worked on is still being discussed years later. For animation historian fans the film is more than a God-send; it is a Holy Grail of animation documentation that is second only to the almost lost Disney film “The Sweatbox.”
You have Bob Camp sharing story after story about what inspired iconic moments from the show and the fights that had to be had with the network executives. Voice actors (like Billy West) re-create their favorite scenes right in front of our eyes (and you even get to hear a different voice for a character or two before the ‘official’ voice was settled on). My goodness, even the network executives who approved the show are here to discuss what attracted them to the show, their concerns about the direction, and even what the final straw was that got the creator fired. The creator, of course, is John Kricfalusi (AKA: John K.), who is the driving force between every aspect of the show. As the man who came up with the core concept, he reminded me a lot of Walt Disney during the ‘making of’ videos for “Snow White & the Seven Dwarves,” where (like Walt) he would voice and act out entire episodes in front of his animators.
Heck, he even drew most of the storyboards to show everyone how the show was “supposed to look.” Although he’s not the ‘auteur’ that some would make him out to be, he is clearly the man driving the car (for better or for worse, as he usually crashed right through the ‘Deadline’ stop signs). John K. himself even participates in the documentary, and while it’s understandable why people would find him to be an insufferable egomaniac (he doesn’t seem to like any cartoons he didn’t make), there is no denying that he knows the art of animation and he is absolutely charismatic when he is talking. Like “Ren & Stimpy” itself, John’s involvement with “Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story” is the biggest reason why the movie works…and is also the biggest anchor to the whole project.
Though “Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story” was likely intended to be a love letter to the show itself, a dark shadow was cast over it when two former animators publicly accused John K. of inappropriate sexual conduct and “grooming.” Of the two girls, only Robyn Bird appears to discuss her experience, but it is a heartbreaking one to hear. I give John K. credit that he does discuss the allegations openly and makes it clear that he was wrong. He also offers what appears to be a heartfelt apology. I have no idea how sorry he truly is (especially when the movie shows a shot of him at a comic convention, where what appears to be a teenage girl keeps him company), but this is how far the movie is willing to go with this topic. To go further would drastically change the film into something it was not, and I suspect the filmmakers were taken aback by accusations (which would explain the eleventh-hour inclusion).
Still, I think a sequel addressing this topic in more detail would be equally beneficial, and since John K. is officially retired from the animation scene (though “not by choice” as he dully admits), he may sit down once more and talk more about what his state of mind was back then. Sure, you might be reading that and thinking that’s wishful thinking, but the fact that he addressed the allegations at all (and even apologized for them) is a lot more than most accused predators do, so there might be some hope that he would participate in such a film. After all, if there is one thing I sensed from John K. it is that his reputation is VERY important to him, and he may be looking for redemption!
“Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story” is not going to please everyone. For those looking for a celebration of a revered series, the sexual abuse allegations in the final act feels akin to a couple of cops bursting in to crash the party. For those who want a more detailed examination of how a culture could have (allegedly) allowed John K. to get away with what he did, it almost feels like a footnote to the story. One that screams “yeah, this disturbing thing potentially happened, but look at how great this show is!” For some, the last-minute discussion may be considered so brief it could be considered offensive. Either way, the filmmakers were put in a tough spot and addressed the situation as best as they could. I feel this will work more for fans who admire “Ren & Stimpy” or animation in general than for people who are interested in the supposed ‘crime’ angle, but for those people “Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story” brings on the happy joy for 97% of the film!
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