In the aftermath of the '80s glut of just, like, truly terrible cartoons that worked more like commercials than anything else (lookin' at you, Transformers), something seemingly impossible happened—children's network Nickelodeon completely revitalized the art form with a block of programming known as Nicktoons. People of a certain age may recall how the 1991 Nicktoons premiere included Rugrats, Doug and little show called Ren & Stimpy. The latter moved mountains.
The brainchild of animator and animation obsessive John Kricfalusi, the stories of the idiot cat Stimpy and his unhinged lunatic best friend Ren the chihuahua, the show not only became a fast favorite of kids and parents alike, it brought a significant level of artistry back into the cartoon world that hadn't been part of the equation since Fleischer Studios. The world was rapt, the newly formed Spumco Studios behind the cartoon was stocked with rockstars of animation and someplace at the center stood Kricfalusi, proving creator-driven content steeped in actual artistry was possible if one could assemble a talented enough team. The first year was legendary.
But as we learn in the new documentary Happy Happy Joy Joy from filmmakers Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood, the good times were short-lived and quickly overshadowed by Kricfalusi's dictatorial work practices, obsessions, missed deadlines and even pedophilia.
Through interviews with former Spumco artists, Nickelodeon execs and Kricfalusi himself, we learn of impossible hours and heartbreaking conditions; of the 16-year-old who moved to California to become an animator only to live under Kricfalusi's manipulative thumb. He readily admits it happened on camera, though its late-film inclusion feels unfortunate when stacked against the many other "We were true artists and he was a genius!" interviews beforehand.
It's the most important part of the story, and one that comes perilously close to ruining the built-up image of Ren & Stimpy harbored by many. But as the doc eventually points out, Kricfalusi was only one part of the machine, and the dozens of others who made Ren & Stimpy happen—without abusing a child—deserve their moment in the sun. They created something truly special.
+Proves the importance of animation
-Should've stuck it to John K. harder
Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story
Directed by Cicero and Easterwood
Amazon, NR, 104 min.