When is a cartoon frog not just a cartoon frog? When he’s Pepe, the brainchild of artist Matt Furie, who in 2005 created the laid-back anthropomorphic amphibian for a comic about post-collegiate slacker life, only to subsequently watch as the character was adopted as a symbol of white nationalist hate by the alt-right and Donald Trump. Named after its subject’s catchphrase, “Feels Good Man” is director Arthur Jones’ nonfiction portrait of Pepe’s ignominious transformation, a strange and terrifying odyssey that says much about intellectual property, fringe groups and the power of online imagery — and culture — to alter the national landscape. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, the absorbing doc’s relevance and astuteness should net it across-the-board appeal.
Pepe’s origin story begins in Furie’s comic series “Boy’s Club” and, in particular, an uploaded strip in which the big-eyed, plump-lipped frog pees with his pants pulled down, then confesses to his friend that he does so because it “feels good man.” That should give you some idea of the original Pepe’s level of maturity and gravity. The frog, however, was soon taken very seriously by those on 4chan, the message board safe haven for lonely, angry, disenfranchised outcasts, who embraced the crudely drawn (and thus incredibly malleable) Pepe as the embodiment of their own sad existences spent living on the margins, if not — as one interviewed member does — in their mom’s basement.
Thus a subcultural meme was born, and when Pepe went mainstream — thanks to social media posts by Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj — 4channers responded in typically extreme, furious fashion. Attempting to reestablish their ownership of the character by making him downright un-co-optable, they associated Pepe with 9/11, decorated him with swastikas and had him spew Nazi-esque ugliness. When 4channers started seeing Donald Trump as a like-minded figurehead for their nihilistic worldview, a marriage between the then-presidential candidate and Pepe was born — with a new portrait of a smugly smirking Pepe functioning as a provocation couched as a joke, thereby preemptively staving off criticism.
At the center of this unlikely maelstrom was Furie, who comes across as an easygoing guy naturally bewildered and offended by the fact that his creation has become an emblem of the likes of Trump, Richard Spencer (famously punched on camera while explaining his Pepe pin), Alex Jones (sued by Furie for selling posters featuring the frog) and their intolerant acolytes. Director Jones clearly sympathizes with Furie’s (seemingly futile) creative and legal attempts to reclaim his creation for more positive purposes. Nonetheless, both filmmaker and artist also concede that Furie’s refusal to squash the burgeoning meme-ification of Pepe during its nascent stages was a catastrophic mistake — thus turning the documentary, on the one hand, into a cautionary tale about ceding control of one’s work to the public at large.
By the time the Anti-Defamation League adds Pepe to its hate-symbol register, and people begin buying “rare Pepe” memes with cryptocurrency known as “Pepe Ca$h” (seriously), “Feels Good Man” has thoroughly detailed the character’s winding route to insane infamy. In the process, it provides a primer about the way 21st-century images and ideas can be unexpectedly, and propagandistically, hijacked and warped. Jones conveys all of this through not only traditional talking-head interviews and archival footage but via extensive animated sequences — based on Furie’s own Pepe and “Boy’s Club” designs — that suggest the hallucinatory and often phantasmagoric nature of this crazy tale.
Driven by Ari Balouzian and Ryan Hope’s alternately playful, anxious and mournful score, “Feels Good Man” offers an inside peek at the internet’s growing ability to affect and shape modern society, which often makes the film a nightmare about extremism and technology. Yet in its closing discussion of Pepe’s new role as a heartening symbol of democracy and resistance for Hong Kong protesters, it also suggests that if the figurative genie can never be put back in the bottle, he can hopefully still be transformed once more — this time from a figure of darkness into one of light.