REVIEW: ‘Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story’ (2020) Responds to the Elephant in the Room

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

“It’s hard to place blame on Happy Happy Joy Joy for including multiple conversations with its subject’s creator, […] but it is difficult to reconcile with the documentary’s use of this footage and how it shapes the film’s narrative.”

On August 11, 1991 Nickelodeon premiered their first three original animated series, which they dubbed “Nicktoons.” These three pioneer programs for the channel were Rugrats, Doug, and The Ren & Stimpy Show – the latter of which would go on to bring the station as much controversy as it did acclaim. While all three shows were a breath of fresh air at a time when many children’s cartoons were created with the express purpose to sell toys, The Ren & Stimpy Show stood out the most as being something entirely new. Despite being a kid’s show it was dark and provocative with its two animal protagonists often finding themselves in increasingly absurd situations over the course of its five seasons. It would go on to inspire a few direct “copy cat” productions at other networks, as well as radically change the world of children’s animation in terms of style, humor, and expression. With such a significant impact on the medium, and Nickelodeon’s recent obsession with 90’s nostalgia, it’s no surprise that longtime fan Ron Cicero would see the show as the perfect subject for a reflective behind the scenes documentary. Unfortunately, Cicero’s fluff piece about a beloved cartoon was abruptly disrupted when the dark truths about Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi came to light mid-production.

Cicero’s documentary, Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story (2020) begins in a rather lighthearted manner. Soundbites from later in the documentary about Kricfalusi’s abusive nature on set, and a flash of the now infamous photo of John K with girlfriend Robyn Byrd, allude to what’s to come, but the interviews at the film’s start are generally celebratory in nature. Famous fans applaud the show and the show’s animators speak to John K’s genius as an artist and creator. There’s some talking heads in which artists who worked for Kricfalusi bring up his unrestrained anger and intense work ethic, but it’s heavily implied through the narrative of the film up to this point that the extremity of his behavior was a component which ultimately led to the success of Ren & Stimpy. It is after this rather eclectic introduction to the show’s complicated past that the documentary introduces one of its key contributors – John Kricfalusi himself.

It’s hard to place blame on Happy Happy Joy Joy for including multiple conversations with its subject’s creator, particularly since the filmmakers were unaware of said creator’s gross misconduct at the start of production, but it is difficult to reconcile with the documentary’s use of this footage and how it shapes the film’s narrative. 

For those unaware, a BuzzFeed article by Ariane Lange, titled “The Disturbing Secret Behind An Iconic Cartoon: Underage Sexual Abuse,” was published in 2018, and alleges that John Kricfalusi preyed on two underage girls, using their love of Ren & Stimpy to lure them in and groom them. When approached by BuzzFeed News, Kricfalusi admitted to having had a sixteen year old girlfriend in the past, and looking into the case revealed it to be somewhat of an open secret within the animation world, with one book on the history of the Nickelodeon show referencing “a girl [John] had been dating since she was fifteen years old.”

A pile of decorated envelopes addressed to Robyn Byrd from John Kricfalusi
Image Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures (2020) and Ladies & Gentlemen, Inc. (2018)

It feels irresponsible then that Happy Happy Joy Joy spends the majority of its runtime hearing John K’s side of the story rather than that of his victims. Although the film does its best to paint him as an abuser to both his employees and to his young female fans in its last act, this isn’t until after it sets him up as a visionary who was in over his head, the “next Walt Disney” whose prospects were dashed when he was fired from his own production for repeatedly missing deadlines and challenging Nickelodeon’s authority. He’s portrayed as a tragic figure as much as he is a manipulative monster, with the documentary highlighting personal accounts of his own father’s abusive and domineering behavior towards him on more than one occasion. 

The introduction of the 2018 BuzzFeed article in the documentary certainly does a lot to take him down a notch, allowing one of his victims, Robyn Byrd, to speak at length about her personal experiences with him and how she recognized a pattern in his hiring of young people who treated him as a God, but a lot of her statements are unfortunately undermined by the documentary’s final minutes which mythologize John K more than they condemn him. A well-intentioned quote by Byrd, saying that although she can no longer stomach Ren & Stimpy she doesn’t want others to abandon something that meant a lot to them as children, allows viewers to be complacent in their further enjoyment of the Nickelodeon cartoon, and is used by the documentary to segue into an ending that initially highlights the wide array of creators who worked on the show but eventually circles back to reiterating the fact that John K is still a visionary despite his misdeeds. 

All that said, Happy Happy Joy Joy is, at times, as informative about its topic as it is misguided about its more serious subject matter. It’s a thorough look into the production Nickelodeon’s groundbreaking original property, the variety of artists and producers who made it possible, and the impact the show has had on the animation world as a whole since its premiere in the early 90’s. It’s also a very stylish documentary, with subject-appropriate sketchy title cards and a number of visually compelling presentations of Ren & Stimpy clips scattered throughout. Although its emotional component is weakly written, it’s a technical marvel and a generally well-made documentary, particularly for a first time director.

The situation presented to Ron Cicero late in the production of Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story was an unquestionably complicated one to deal with, and it’s unfortunate that the documentary misses the mark on a nuanced handling of said issue in spite of Cicero’s best efforts. Its attempt at telling the dark side of Ren & Stimpy’s production feels incredibly last minute and awkward in terms of the film’s tone, and it too frequently presents excuses for John K’s heinous actions. An interviewee states that the reputation of the show is forever marred by John K’s name, but the film fumbles in its attempts to reconcile this idea with the introduction’s idolization of him.

With Nickelodeon recently announcing an adult spinoff of Ren & Stimpy in the works that will have no involvement from John Kricfalusi it will be interesting to see how the legacy of the show develops in the coming years. As a number of fans and animators expressed on Twitter, it will be hard to grapple with the fact that the show will be obstinately connected to years of sexual abuse, and it’s baffling that Nickelodeon would go through with the concept at all after the allegations came to light a few years ago. The ending of Happy Happy Joy Joy suggests that to remedy internal conflicts with the series audiences should appreciate the hard work of everyone else in the cast and crew who made Ren & Stimpy possible rather than zeroing in on John K’s creation of the characters. Whether you agree with this stance or not, it seems that Nickelodeon won’t be letting go of its controversial original money-making property any time soon.

Director: Ron Cicero

Producers: Ron Cicero, Kevin Klauber

Cast: John Kricfalusi, Bob Camp, Robyn Byrd, Bobby Lee

Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story is available to stream on iTunes and Google Play.

Header image courtesy of Gravitas Ventures (2020) and Ladies & Gentlemen, Inc. (2018)