Over the past few weeks, when not writing posts for this blog, catching up on episodes of WandaVision, or watching random true crime shows on Netflix (the Cecil Hotel, anyone?), I have been watching endless movies to help pass lockdown boredom. Many of these movies have provided me with entertainment (except Outside the Wire which was rubbish), but with each passing day I have found myself craving something different to view.
This craving led me towards the path of the recently released docu-film, Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story. The docu-film made its debut in 2020, but is now available to rent and buy in the UK via streaming platforms including Amazon and iTunes.
Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story tells the tale of cult ‘90s Nickelodeon series, The Ren & Stimpy Show. The film documents the creation of the series, its rise in popularity, and its impact on animated programming during the 1990s.
As well as explaining what the show was and why it was such a hit, Happy Happy Joy Joy also delves into the backstage behaviour of Ren & Stimpy’s controversial creator, John Kricfalusi. Through discussions with those who worked with him, to conversations with the man himself, the film throws the spotlight on the darker side of the show and its guiding force.
What attracted me to this docu-film, apart from a desire to break away from fiction films for one night, was Ren & Stimpy – two cartoon characters who I once adored. For a brief period of time during the mid-‘90s, I was obsessed with this animated duo and I wanted to know why I stopped caring about them. After watching this film, I believe I got my answer.
Despite airing in 1991, The Ren & Stimpy Show didn’t arrive on mainstream British television until January 1994, where it was broadcast on Monday evenings on BBC 2. I was 12-years’ old when the series made its debut, and after watching just one episode I was an instant fan.
I was at the perfect age for an off-the-wall cartoon which revelled in fart gags, slapstick characters, and gross-out humour. The animation was completely different to most of the cartoons I was used to and I thought Ren & Stimpy were hilarious.
Yet, as rapid as my obsession with The Ren & Stimpy Show was, it also burnt out fairly quickly. After a year or so, I soon moved onto other shows, and the series became ‘that thing I used to watch’.
As such, I was oblivious to any controversy surrounding the series and I had no idea that creator, John Kricfalusi was fired from the show. Only in recent years did I read something about allegations of inappropriate behaviour, but I never got around to looking into it.
So, when I read the synopsis for Happy Happy Joy Joy I knew now was the time to reconnect with this once beloved series. I wanted to remind myself why I found it so appealing as a pre-teen, and what the heck happened to mire it in controversy.
In this docu-film I got both of those answers, but like someone who peeks at their Christmas presents too early, I felt somewhat uncomfortable and dirty as a result. The film took me on a high as I learned about the kinetic creativity that brought Ren & Stimpy to life, then completely floored me with backstage drama.
To begin with, the main focus of the film is on the series and what made it so special. From its influences (specifically the work of animators, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones), to its juvenile humour, Happy Happy Joy Joy is keen to highlight the positives.
The film explores the background story of how the series made it to air, who all the key players are, and the anarchic studio that breathed life into the characters. This is all interesting and insightful stuff, and a good reminder the series was continually trying to push the envelope while harking back to the Golden Age of animation.
This exploration of the art and the artists helped me to understand why I connected with the show in the way that I did. It wasn’t because of the puerile humour, but because I recognised the show’s stylistic and thematic links back to the old Looney Tunes & Merry Melodies cartoons which I adored as a kid (and still adore today).
Sure, I found Ren & Stimpy funny – I remember laughing at the characters – but I now realise it was the animation which I bonded with. Perhaps this is why ultimately I fell out of love with the show, because I came to realise that fart gags only go so far.
In short, and despite my fondness for anything colourful, fun, and irreverent, I grew up. This is arguably something that didn’t happen to Kricfalusi, because as the docu-film moves into its second half, the focus switches to the creator and his somewhat unworkable behaviour.
The portrait Happy Happy Joy Joy initially paints of Kricfalusi, is that of someone who is very creative but also someone stuck in his teenage years, as well as his own mind set. Someone who has all these great ideas, and is very enthusiastic, yet favours childish toilet humour and only wanting to do things his way.
He is someone who wants perfection; only it is perfection to the point of obsession. His desire to make his cartoon the best of the best, means he loses sight of the basic need of getting a show on air to keep the network happy.
This part of the docu-film borders on the question of whether he is a misunderstood genius. For the record, I don’t think he is – but I know the film wants me to contemplate this.
But then, as the film moves further into his story, the portrait of Kricfalusi changes – it becomes a much darker, more unsettling picture about his personal life.
Happy Happy Joy Joy delivers some troublesome and worrying insights into Kricfalusi’s life and his attitudes. Conversations about his childhood, his relationship with colleagues, and a relationship with an underage former fan turned girlfriend, who no longer wants anything to do with him.
This material changes the angle of the film, and it is here that it becomes even more interesting, and also more unsettling. It gave me much to think about regarding the roles of creators, and how we praise and champion them in the wider world despite knowing very little about them.
After watching Happy Happy Joy Joy, and considering what the film presented, I have found myself reassessing the content, tone, and humour of The Ren & Stimpy Show. I now don’t feel the show was merely a series designed to poke fun and make light of the grotesque, I believe it offers an insight into the mind of its creator.
You may watch the docu-film and get a different reaction. You may not. Ultimately, Happy Happy Joy Joy has given me much to think about and if you’re a Ren & Stimpy fan I urge you to watch it and form your own opinion.
Happy Happy Joy Joy is a fairly fascinating film which details what goes on behind the scenes. It’s not perfect, and a few of the more interesting points could have been explored further, but I found it a must-watch and a reason to revisit my feelings about a once favourite show.