Cinema Quickie: Happy Happy Joy Joy (2020)

John Kricfalusi drawing the Stimpy character with speech text that reads "You Monster"

Every so often, a work of art comes along that shatters preconceptions, shifts the realm of possibility, and reinvigorates its medium.

And every so often, that work is shepherded by a madman.

Unfortunately, the twisted but beloved 90s cartoon Ren & Stimpy falls into that category. It was the result of burgeoning TV network Nickelodeon funding the madcap style of upstart animation personality John Kricfalusi. The show’s story is one of ingenuity, madness, and arrogance — and it’s the focus of the excellent 2020 documentary, Happy Happy Joy Joy.

The Definitive Ren & Stimpy Documentary

I went into Happy Happy Joy Joy craving a deep-dive into Ren & Stimpy, and that’s exactly what I got. As a result, Happy Happy Joy Joy feels like the definitive Ren & Stimpy documentary. I’m not sure that there are others, and I’m not sure that we’ll need others.

During its nearly two-hour runtime, Happy Happy Joy Joy offers a broad, sweeping account of the show’s inception, production, popularity, controversy, and downfall. And it’s riveting to soak in the memories of so many disparate personalities — animators, fans, Nickelodean Executives — who were brought together by this zany animated 90s property.

But in contrast to its title, Happy Happy Joy Joy isn’t purely a celebration of a memorable cartoon. It’s also a rumination on the toxicity that surrounds the show’s now-disgraced creator, John Kricfalusi.

Cult of Personality

The film portrays Ren & Stimpy’s production as cult-like: The product of young, gung-ho animators toiling away in cheap offices for long work hours, attempting to meet lofty and often inconsistent quality standards enforced by the show’s domineering and seemingly narcissistic director/creator, John Kricfalusi.

In retrospect, some Ren & Stimpy animators seem to have relished aspects of the experience, taking pride in their work and the show’s ensuing punk-rock popularity. But Happy Happy Joy Joy also frames Ren & Stimpy as something ultimately tragic: the creative outlet of a troubled man used to ostensibly purge childhood trauma, turbocharge his ego, and eventually, prey on young girl fans.

In the end, Happy Happy Joy Joy poses provocative questions about creativity: Are many of the most transcendent works fated to be products of problematic personalities? And are the most memorable works of art really manifestations of pain and mental illness?

It’s odd for a quirky children’s show like Ren & Stimpy to spur these kinds of questions. But perhaps it’s not surprising for a show that relishes madness to be the product of madness.

All in all, whether you’re a hardcore Ren & Stimpy devotee or just passingly curious about animation, I’d highly recommend Happy Happy Joy Joy.