People of a certain age will no doubt fondly recall Ren & Stimpy. The cartoon was simply unlike anything else we’d ever seen. Not only was it different than what Nickelodeon was showing, it stood out as a singular entity in all of animation. A precursor to the more adult themed shows like Rick & Morty that are so popular now, it was truly a cult entity. The new documentary Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story seeks to not just depict how the show got made, but also why it didn’t last. When it’s focused on that element, it’s very compelling and successful. It’s only when it takes aa half-hearted look at the accusations against show creator John Kricfalusi that it gets taken down a peg.
Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story has all of the ingredients that a really great documentary needs. It’s focused on a subject that some folks obsess over, but certainly could use the added attention. It has controversy, failure, and success. Plus, the figure at the center of it all is a larger than life individual that some love, some hate, and many seek to understand. This all sets the audience up for something that should be much more than just fan service. It certainly is, but a choice in the third act keeps it from greatness.
The documentary follows the creation and subsequent cultural impact of Ren & Stimpy, as well as the sordid details of show creator John Kricfalusi. Initially, the doc introduces us to Kricfalusi and his askew view of the world, which would come in handy when his artwork and characters are taken notice of. Two in particular, Ren Höek the chihuahua, and Stimpson J. Cat (better known as Stimpy). Crafted to be the leads of their own bizarre cartoon, it quickly becomes a cult favorite, standing out from the pack on Nickelodeon, and growing a legion of hardcore fans.
Once the show is a hit, the doc moves towards what made it all crumble, including the difficulty the network had working with Kricfalusi. Then, there’s his personal life, which is more than controversial, but probably illegal. At this point, there’s some lip service paid to how much his failings impact the admiration for the show, but it’s a muddled message that doesn’t quite jive with what the rest of the film has been. It’s all well and good to tackle the issue, but it needed more time and more focus in order to not feel shoehorned in, which is a shame.
Fans of Ren & Stimpy will fondly recall all of the bits of the show we see. The movie doesn’t overplay that hand, more giving you a taste than just living and dying by clips from the run of the program. There’s enough interesting bits on what makes Ren into Ren and Stimpy into Stimpy that even if you never saw the show, you can appreciate why others do. It’s just that if you loved it, you’ll love it more after watching this flick.
Directors Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood (Easterwood also handles the cinematography) manage to get a lot of mileage out of seeing how the cartoon came together, as well as picking the brains of those who developed it. They even get some interesting testimonies from creatives in the industry who were inspired by the show. Cicero and Easterwood have a failing we’ll get to momentarily, but when they’re just focusing on the development of a cult classic, this is on incredibly sturdy ground.
The big issue here is in relation to John Kricfalusi. He looms large over the production and the filmmakers aren’t completely sure how to handle him. Perhaps it was due to what it took to get Kricfalusi to cooperate and be interviewed, but there’s an incomplete feeling to the back end of the documentary. They don’t hold his feet to the fire and he frankly seems to get off without particularly defending his actions. The filmmakers may say that the doc is trying to be objective, but it winds up leaving a bad taste in your mouth at the end, after having a wonderful time up until then.
Now playing, Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story is a tale of two documentaries. The one focused on just the making of the show is entertaining, thorough, and a real winner. The one focused on Kricfalusi is far more hit or miss, stuck between trying to understand him and not doing enough to hold his feet to the fire. It doesn’t keep the overall final product from being a success, but it does prevent it from being as truly special as it could have been. In that way, Kricfalusi’s relationship to the doc is sort of like his relationship with the original incarnation of the show. Go figure.