×

‘Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story’: Film Review

The meteoric rise and contentious fall of the envelope-pushing 1990s cult cartoon series is charted in this lively documentary.

With:
Matt Kennedy, Scott Webb, Vince Waller, JJ Sedelmaier, Elinor Blake, Tom Minton, Lynne Naylor, Bobby Lee, Iliza Shlesinger, Chris Gore, Jim Ballantine, Bob Camp, Chris Riccardi, Richard Pursel, Billy West, Vanessa Coffey, John Kricfalulsi, Robyn Byrd, Bill Wray, Jack Black.

Running time: 107 MIN.

For many the 1990s were the Age of Irony, with hipster cultural touchstones like Spy magazine and the TV show “Strangers With Candy” helping make snark the preferred flavor of the day. “The Simpsons” was also a big player in that area, yet arguably no cartoon series before had been quite so postmodern as “The Ren & Stimpy Show,” which premiered a couple years after it in 1991. While Matt Groening’s creation still chugs on decades later, way past its pop-phenomenon peak yet remaining a valuable Fox commodity, John Kricfalusi’s was short-lived — and his own control of it even shorter.

“Happy Happy Joy Joy” is both an homage to an inspired endeavor and a cautionary tale illustrating how even the greatest popular success can be brought down by unchecked ego, perfectionism and “artistic temperament” at the top. Feature debutants Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood’s documentary is a very entertaining recap that grows more disturbing as it wades into the dysfunctional behavior that doomed the show, and still somewhat taints its legacy. It should prove a hot item among the series’ many past and ongoing fans.

A compulsive drawer fascinated by animation from an early age, Kricfalusi formed Spumco Studios in 1988, though his pre-“Ren” professional activities are barely noted here. Assembling a group of talented specialists equally dissatisfied with the cheap, generic, merchandizing-focused toons that had dominated children’s television for decades, they hoped to bring back the artistic glory days of “golden era” Looney Tunes and such. While uninterested in the specific concept he sought to pitch, Nickelodeon executive Vanessa Coffey encouraged Kricfalusi to develop two subsidiary characters that caught her fancy.

Thus was born “The Ren & Stimpy Show,” variously described here as “If Tom and Jerry opened up a portal to Hell” and “A dog and cat are friends but live on the precipice of insanity and death.” It took the wild physical and psychological exaggeration of Bob Clampett’s classic Warner Bros. shorts to berserk new extremes, with the misadventures of psychotic, asthmatic Chihuahua Ren (initially voiced by Kricfalusi) and dim, loyal, hapless cat Stimpy (Billy West) inevitably bending toward the violent and gross.

The content was envelope-pushing enough to create public controversy (particularly as it was on a child-targeting network), as well as incessant battles with Nickelodeon brass. But that crazed absurdism, combined with a striking hand-drawn visual style, also made for an immediate ratings hit and object of faddish obsession. Kricfalusi’s gifted staff were gratified to be working on something so cutting-edge, even at the cost of enduring extremely long hours and a somewhat tyrannical, abusive boss. But their environment grew worse when he broke up with girlfriend-collaborator Lynn Naylor, who’d been a mediating influence. And when the network upped its second-season episode order in response to overwhelming demand, Kricfalusi became even more maddeningly difficult. Coffey says she had no choice but to terminate his and Spumco’s involvement when he flatly refused to cooperate with any future deadline or budgetary limitations. Company co-founder Bob Camp was promoted to creative director on the show’s subsequent seasons, which ended in 1995 and are generally regarded as inferior.

It was a spectacular wipeout that Kricfalusi took hard. But the role he assumed of sensitive genius thwarted by crass moneymen is somewhat undercut by co-workers’ latter-day testimony, as well as glimpses here of his later work, which was so nastily “extreme” (including a “Ren & Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon” canceled after just three episodes) that it suggests Nickelodeon’s squeamishness actually did his sensibility a huge favor.

At Sundance the documentary directors’ noted that “Happy Happy Joy Joy” was virtually completed almost two years ago when BuzzFeed broke the story that fans Robyn Byrd and Katie Rice had been manipulated into abusive relationships with Kricfalusi while still teenagers. This revived tales of his creating a hostile work environment even by Hollywood standards while adding a new level of pederastic ick. Soon after, the hitherto uncooperative Kricfalusi (as well as Byrd) agreed to extensive interviews, which were woven into the smoothly restructured feature. He duly strikes a posture of shame for his predation toward underage women. But he seems resistant to any grasp of the notion that his behavior was responsible for what happened to “Ren & Stimpy,” or to his career in general.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of archival material to draw on here, from peeks at the show’s well-documented creation to various promotions and influences. (Kirk Douglas at his most histrionic was evidently a great favorite among the animators looking for exaggerated character expressions on the continuum between rage and panic.) Key personnel are garrulous and colorful in reminiscence, not least Kricfalusi himself. It is lost on none of them that their bratty broadcast baby opened the door to virtually all boundary-stretching, “Adult Swim”-type cartooning since.

“Happy Happy Joy Joy” is predominantly fast-paced fun that will be catnip for animation fans, despite the admittedly gruesome (yet engrossing) dark side to this tale. Notably, the titular song that was “Ren & Stimpy’s” single most viral (albeit pre-internet) sensation is never heard here. All excerpts from the show are presented in slightly altered ways (on an on-screen television, etc.), further suggesting some rights issues the film had to finesse around. As an overall package, however, it’s appropriately slick and punchy.

Popular on Variety

'Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story': Film Review

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 29, 2020. Running time: 107 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Ladies & Gentlemen presentation of an Invader production. (Int'l sales: Submarine, New York City.) Producers: Ron Cicero, Kevin Klauber. Executive producer: Cicero. Co-executive producers: Peter Wade, Ryk Maverick, Casey Dobson, Jason Anders.

Crew: Directors, writers: Ron Cicero, Kimo Easterwood. Camera: Easterwood. Editors: Sean Jarrett, Christina Burchard, Kevin Klaubner, Cicero, Easterwood.

With: Matt Kennedy, Scott Webb, Vince Waller, JJ Sedelmaier, Elinor Blake, Tom Minton, Lynne Naylor, Bobby Lee, Iliza Shlesinger, Chris Gore, Jim Ballantine, Bob Camp, Chris Riccardi, Richard Pursel, Billy West, Vanessa Coffey, John Kricfalulsi, Robyn Byrd, Bill Wray, Jack Black.

More Film

  • Coronavirus Placeholder COVID19 Variety

    Japan's Toei Closes Tokyo Studio After Coronavirus Infection

    Toei closed its Tokyo studio Tuesday after actor Reo Komiya was diagnosed with the coronavirus. The star of the “Mashin Sentai Kiramager,” a sci-fi/action show broadcast on the TV Asahi network, seventeen-year-old Komiya tested positive for the virus while shooting new episodes at the studio. His condition is not known at the present time. A [...]

  • Aqute Media Takes North America on

    Aqute Media Takes North America on Helen Reddy Biopic 'I Am Woman'

    London-based sales agent WestEnd Films has closed a North American deal with Jeff Sackman and Berry Meyerowitz’s company Aqute Media for “I Am Woman,” the biopic about Australian singer Helen Reddy. The film had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival as the opening film of the Special Presentations section. The film also recently [...]

  • Sundance Film Festival Placeholder

    Sheffield Doc/Fest Rejigs With Fall Programming, Virtual Forums in Lieu of Festival

    The Sheffield Doc/Fest pitching forums, MeetMarket and Alternate Realities Talent Market are to take place virtually in June, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The rest of the June festival is being replaced by a series of programs that will take place on weekends through the fall. The planned programming will include film screenings, talks, panels, [...]

  • Southland Tales

    Streamer Mubi Partners With Prada Foundation on 'Perfect Failures' Film Series

    Specialist streaming service Mubi has teamed up with fashion label Prada’s Fondazione Prada foundation on “Perfect Failures,” a curated selection of movies deemed to have been “widely misunderstood” upon their release. The joint project will launch on both the Mubi platform and the Fondazione Prada’s website on April 5 with U.S. director Richard Kelly’s 2006 flop [...]

  • Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) in

    'Morbius,' 'Ghostbusters' Sequel and More Sony Movies Pushed Back to 2021

    Sony Pictures has pushed back many of its major tentpoles — including “Morbius,” “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” “Uncharted” and “Peter Rabbit 2” — to next year, the studio announced on Monday. Jason Reitman’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” has moved from July 10, 2020, to March 5, 2021; Jared Leto’s “Morbius” has been pushed back from July 31, 2020, to [...]

  • Anne Hathaway to Star in 'French

    Film News Roundup: Anne Hathaway Stars in 'French Children Don't Throw Food'

    In today’s film news roundup, Anne Hathaway will portray an American journalist in Paris, blockbuster director Michael Bay signs with Sony Pictures, and “Extra Ordinary” and “The Etruscan Smile” are added to arthouse streaming services. CASTING Anne Hathaway is starring in the movie “French Children Don’t Throw Food,” based on Pamela Druckerman’s autobiographical book, “Bringing [...]

  • Empty movie theater

    Cinemark Cuts Employee Wages Temporarily After Coronavirus Closes Theaters

    Cinemark is temporarily reducing wages for all U.S. employees while its theaters remain closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. With these measures, workers salaries will be cut by around 50%. All employees are working reduced hours and will still maintain full benefits. Cinemark’s CEO Mark Zoradi and the board of directors are voluntarily forgoing their [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content