Sundance 2020: ‘Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story’ Review – Ethics Get Questioned by the Ugly Truths of a Beloved Cartoon

Ren & Stimpy, the widely known program Nickelodeon probably wants people to slowly start forgetting. The scrawny chihuahua and blue-nosed cat blew up the cartoon industry in the early 90s, making way for the massive wave of animation auteurism that gave birth to many classics. It is completely fair to say that Spongebob Squarepants, Courage the Cowardly Dog, and even some more recently such as Gravity Falls would not exist without Ren & Stimpy. Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story sets out to document the show’s cultural influence while juggling the rise and demise of its creator- John Kricfalusi. It mostly succeeds, but some elements stumble when the fact of Kricfalusi being a sexual predator comes into consideration.

Directors Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood first started this documentary as a crowdfunded campaign. Ren & Stimpy being such an influential cartoon made way for their crowdfunding to reach a premiere at Sundance 2020. The journey between concept and creation proved to be quite the turn of events. The timeline of Kricfalusi emerging as a cartoonist in Los Angeles to finally getting fired and replaced from R&S is enough for one doc of its own. The origins of the Avant-garde style of R&S, behind the scene hijinks, creative differences, and reports of Kricfalusi’s mental abuse to his staff already require a lot of responsibility on behalf of the documentarians. The weight of portraying this story could not get higher until 2018.

Ren & Stimpy Executive Producer Vanessa Coffey Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The truth of Kricfalusi being a sexual predator was revealed by one of the victims, Robyn Byrd, in a expose via Buzzfeed in March 2018. He and Byrd moved in together as a couple after months of exchanging fan letters in 1997- she was only 16 and he was roughly 40. In their time together, he mentally and sexually abused her while she was working as his intern in hopes of becoming a huge cartoonist like him. When she finally could not take it anymore, she left only to be replaced by another young fan, Katie Rice, shortly after.

Cicero and Easterwood already locked picture on their doc when this news broke. Kricfalusi initially refused to be interviewed, but the directors decided that they had no choice but to go back and include these facts. It was then that Kricfalusi agreed to go on camera. The final result is The Ren & Stimpy Story- a doc, that even though very well made, does not have its structure totally in check. The most obvious reason is the filmmakers finishing a film, not featuring facts of abuse, to only go back and edit a story of surviving abuse to only feature the abuser himself for the majority of the film.

Ren & Stimpy director and writer Bob Camp Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Kircfalusi is in the majority of the doc taking viewers through his side of the story. Thankfully, Cicero and Easterwood were able to get an abundance of former R&S animators and producers to share their stories on camera as well. Robyn Byrd, bless her brave soul, also appears for an interview. The directors’ goal is to make the viewer feel like a judge of some sort. Both sides to the R&S story are presented by the defense and prosecutors themselves. Surprisingly, all stories coincide with this leading to Kricfalusi being exposed as a truly sick individual.

He does not deny living with underaged girls, but he does deny abuse to an extent. He does try to make his apologies to everyone he has wronged while still standing by his dignity. Those who have low morals can easily see this as a sympathetic portrait of the abuser- which can be extremely irresponsible filmmaking. Through their framing of Kircfalusi, it is clear that Cicero and Eastwood believe him to be guilty as well. That is the doc’s saving grace because frankly, there is a little bit too much time spent where the viewer forgets that they are watching a predator talking about his accomplishments onscreen.

The stories of the people who knew Kircfalusi and who had just an equal part in making R&S make this doc worth enough for one’s time. In truth, there are many fans of the show and animation in general who genuinely do not know about Kircfalusi’s ugly past. The more this subject gets to spread the better, and the directors know this at least. Viewers will definitely question their own ethics and those of documentary filmmaking while seeing Kircfalusi open up about his life. Is this a platform for the abuser or a platform for the survivor? Can it be both? These are questions that viewers would want to raise to the filmmakers. One wishes they could know a more solid answer just after one watch.

The Ren & Stimpy Story is still insightful enough into the history of the cartoon and its cultural impact. Again, this works better because it was the directors’ focus from day one. Documentaries always aspire to interview the guilty, thus making Kircfalusi’s inclusion not so questionable, but his screen time and framing are. No doc can truly be unbiased, even if it comes from a high moral standard- that is still a point of bias. This film is trying to stand on the most unbiased ground, but that does not really succeed when talking about mental and sexual abuse.

The doc ultimately brings it all home by questioning if the fictional characters of Ren and Stimpy themselves are tainted by this legacy. The film truly does not believe that you can separate the art from the artist, which is true because R&S is an obvious extension from Kircfalusi’s persona. Although, the doc believes there are more nuanced ways of tackling this topic- which is something a lot of people need to hear right now. Just because Kircfalusi is a bad person does not mean that you cannot watch an episode of R&S and feel any less like a kid having fun.

Score: ★★★

Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story was selected to premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival!

Follow writer and managing editor Andrew J. Salazar on Twitter: @AndrewJ626

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