If you lived during the 1990s, then you are most likely familiar with the popular Nickelodeon cartoon The Ren & Stimpy Show. Known for its innovative style and crass, adult humor, the show was a huge success during its run and has only seemed to gain a larger following since its demise. It’s a fixture of nostalgia for any “90s babies”, and while this critic was born later in the decade, the show was still a part of his childhood. In Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story, filmmakers Kimo Eastwood and Ron Cicero examine the origins of the classic cartoon as well as the controversies behind its creator, John Kricfalusi. For hardcore fans who are already aware of its story, it’s a well put together documentary that never verges on the edge of boredom while consistently staying refreshing and informative. For viewers who aren’t aware, their initial feelings of nostalgia will swell into an immense feeling of disgust.
The film goes in simple chronological order, recalling the origins of Kricfalusi’s (or John K. as he is known) career as a cartoonist/animator. Once he pitched an idea to the newly founded Nickelodeon (whose executives had a particular interest in two side characters named Ren and Stimpy), the show was on its way. Despite being programmed on a television channel for children, John K. was intent on getting as much past the censors as he could. This resulted in The Ren & Stimpy Show’s trademark gross-out humor that would soon make it so famous and a fan favorite. Its success also relied heavily on John K.’s insistence on perfection, driving him to constantly overwork his creative partners and develop harsh relationships with them. Everyone working for him knew he was a jerk, but they were also aware of his talent and passion which in turn inspired them.
John K. would eventually get fired from the show after refusing to obey Nickelodeon’s standards. This correlated with the fall of the show and proved to be an effective turning moment in the documentary itself (reminiscent of the classic “fall from grace” story trope). The doc then goes into slightly more unsettling territory as it begins to detail John K.’s life after the show, specifically his targeting of underage female fans and giving them the chance to not only animate for him, but live with him as well. The documentary soon lets us know that this news was a surprise for many of his ex-coworkers and sheds a bit of light on one particular woman’s (Robyn Bird) experience. Despite this turn of events, the filmmakers still make a conscious effort for viewers to separate the knowledge of John K. from their love of the show. This brings attention to the act of separating art from the artist and how every viewer has their own different opinion on the matter.
However, this is where I remain conflicted. Happy Happy Joy Joy is a great example of solid documentary filmmaking: it’s well-made, engaging, nostalgic and satisfying for fans as well as educational for viewers unfamiliar with the subject. This being said, the amount of time it spends on John K.’s controversial life after the show feels all too short. No, the doc is not about him, it is about The Ren & Stimpy Show. But in a sense, he is the show and many of his former coworkers interviewed in the film say the same thing. The show is his life, therefore the film is just as much about him, as well. While saving his questionable actions towards the end of the film may reinstate the “fall from grace” trope, it almost seems that it was tacked on in order to include the information but not dwell on it. Perhaps there is not enough information to fill up any more time, but that is hardly believable. One must wonder whether there could be a documentary fully focused on just that controversy hidden in this one. Perhaps it was the filmmakers’ intentions to change course so abruptly, surprising the audience just as much as it surprised people who knew the man. Either way, it was unfortunately too rushed.
Despite this, the film in no way glamorizes John K. From the beginning, he is depicted as the manipulative genius type who doesn’t necessarily step on others to get to the top, but disregards their wellbeing on his way up there. His strive for perfection would even cause the animators to miss deadlines with the network, satirized in a short where Ren is portrayed as a tyrannical animation director continuously rejecting Stimpy’s work.
Happy Happy Joy Joy is a fine documentary in that it tells you everything you need to know. It is a treat for the hardcore fans of the show that still manages not to alienate those unfamiliar with it. The pacing becomes uneven once John K.’s controversies are mentioned and the doc never seems to regain its momentum afterwards. As stated before, this could very well have been intentional. If it was, however, it just wasn’t effective for me.