The Ren & Stimpy Show was one of the first modern cartoons to prominently credit the work of the talented cartoonists and artists responsible for the bringing the show to life. Created by John Kricfalusi, a man praised as a mad genius by his those he worked with, the series sparked a new kind of cartoon, one that was edgy enough to crack up adults with an odd sense of humor but also silly enough to entertain the kids glued to Nickelodeon. It was a groundbreaking hit.
However, today the celebration of Ren & Stimpy is bittersweet due to the questionable behavior and misdeeds of the creator, known to his colleagues and collaborators as John K. On top of the abrasive creative process that made the show a troublesome but exciting working environment, Kricfalusi took advantage of several young teenage girls who aspired to follow in his footsteps and engaged in inappropriate relationships with them. Though this has undoubtedly tainted the legacy of this revered cartoon, the new documentary Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story attempts to reconcile his eccentric brilliance with his reprehensible personal life by affirming how Kricfalusi himself was not solely responsible for the greatness of the titular madcap chihuahua and his dimwitted cat friend.
Nickelodeon changed the cartoon game when they launched their first wave of original animated programming known as Nicktoons in 1991. Though several memorable cartoons would come out of Niickelodeon as a result, there’s no more influential or celebrated series as The Ren & Stimpy Show. As you’d expect, Happy Happy Joy Joy hits all the necessary bullet points about the creation of Ren & Stimpy, from the gathering of outstanding cartoonists like Bob Camp and Chris Reccardi, both featured in the film extensively, to exploring the renegade style of the series at a time when Nickelodeon was looking to break boundaries with cartoons instead of only using them to shell cheap toys (though that would eventually happen anyway). Somehow the doc does all this without ever actually mentioning the titular song from the series, which is both impressive and a little disappointing.
Directors Ron Cicero & Kimo Easterwood deserve plenty of credit for putting together a stylish and informative documentary with candid interviews and fascinating insights. Each talking head brings integral perspectives on the rise and fall of Ren & Stimpy, not to mention a fond recollection of the renegade environment that was cultivated at John Kricfalusi’s Spumco production banner. Hearing the artists talk about their time at the studio, the experience of working on the show always seemed to outweigh the difficulties that came along with it, especially when it came to dealing with John K during production. From Nickelodeon executive Vanessa Coffey to various cartoonists and artists who made the show stand out as equal parts art and cartoon, we get not just a chronicle of the show’s history, but an evolving perspective on John K’s legacy. There are also great asides with famous fans such as Bobby Lee and Jack Black chiming in throughout.. This is a comprehensive look behind the scenes at the creation and legacy of one of the best cartoons to come out of the 1990s, but it digs even deeper than that.
Clips from Ren & Stimpy are used cleverly to convey the ups and downs of the show’s history while also showing the incredible artistic talent that was on display in every episode. But these clips are used most effectively when they echo the early life and personal influences of John K’s childhood and how that significantly impacted the kind of weird stories and zany characters he brought to the series. You realize that behind the total insanity of this oddball show lies an inherent desire to be accepted by his strict and authoritative father, a man who told John K that his dream of working in cartoons would never happen. Even as John K adamantly defies adhering to any concepts of sincere sentimentality, despite some of the genuinely touching moments within the crazy cartoon, it’s painfully clear in the doc’s interviews that John K had something to prove, which would explain the intense energy he always brought to pitch meetings and writers rooms.
However, as I mentioned before, this documentary also aims to illustrate that John K isn’t the only genius that made Ren & Stimpy possible. As the documentary meticulously reveals, this series was a result of several gifted individuals under the guidance of one unconventional leader all coming together to make something unique and astounding. In fact, the film basically posits that Ren & Stimpy may have found success in spite of John K and his abrasive vision. This is where the documentary succeeds at being more than just standard showbiz history.
While it’s probably true that the series would never have existed without John K’s madness, the rest of the show’s crew is responsible for reeling in his wildest ideas on the show and giving the proceedings heart, consistency and focus. It wasn’t enough to keep the show from falling extremely behind in their production schedule and going wildly over budget when they had barely started a new season. But there’s no clearer evidence of the strength of their collaboration than when the documentary highlights the kind of work that John K churned out after Spumco dissolved and everyone went their own separate ways. Spoiler alert: It was even weirder and wilder, and it wasn’t very good. That includes an unfiltered, ill-conceived Ren & Stimpy revival on Spike TV that was explicitly (in every sense of the word) geared towards adults.
Ren & Stimpy suffered too after John K was fired from Nickelodeon, but that only further proves that this was a perfect storm of almost accidental virtuosity that made this show possible. Perhaps the best example of this is that the characters Ren and Stimpy were never even pitched as having their own show. They were picked by Vanessa Coffey when they were included as the pets of a kid who was part of an ensemble of characters in another cartoon pitch by John K called Your Gang. So while the best episodes of Ren & Stimpy may say “Created by John Kricfalusi,” this documentary makes sure to remind fans that he wasn’t the only cook in the kitchen. And though John K may have tainted the legacy of Ren & Stimpy in many ways, we shouldn’t let that take away from what the many artists who created the show were able to achieve in such a short amount of time.
Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story arrives on VOD and digital today.
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