Happy Happy Joy Joy — the Ren & Stimpy Story, a documentary premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, has a John Kricfalusi problem.
Based on watching Happy Happy Joy Joy — the Ren & Stimpy Story, “having a John Kricfalusi problem” seems to have been a common affliction for those working on and associated with the iconic animated series The Ren & Stimpy Show.
Happy Happy Joy Joy follows Kricfalusi and the supernova that was Ren & Stimpy, which arrived at a moment when animation had become a soulless, mechanized process driven by selling toys and not artistic considerations. Kricfalusi, as the story goes, somehow convinced Nickelodeon to bankroll an unconventional comedy about a sociopathic dog, an amiably addled cat and their adventures that veered into the grotesque, scatological and absurd. Kricfalusi restored an auteurist stamp to animation and, surrounded by a remarkable and demented team of artists, became a short-lived sensation before he was forced to abandon his creation and retreat into eccentric obscurity. Or that’s the basic story.
As depicted by directors Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood, Kricfalusi was a troubled genius of the sort movies and television have been glorifying for decades. He was brilliant and unconventional and wildly ahead of his time, influential and uncontainable. He was also self-destructive and the reason we have so few episodes of Ren & Stimpy is because of his inability and his refusal to work within the system that brought him fame and to treat the employees who facilitated that fame properly. His is a tragic story, but one in which the victims were primarily viewers denied more greatness and Kricfalusi for his self-inflicted wounds.
If you believe that’s the end of the conversation and if you love Ren & Stimpy, chances are good that you’ll love Happy Happy Joy Joy. Cicero and Easterwood place Kricfalusi front-and-center and they have assembled an assortment of Kricfalusi’s Ren & Stimpy collaborators that borders on all-encompassing. From background artists to character animators to some of the biggest names in the show’s lore, including early partners like Bob Camp and Lynne Naylor, Nickelodeon’s Vanessa Coffey and even the late Chris Reccardi, who died last year.
The insight into what made Ren & Stimpy unique is exceptional, delving into Kricfalusi’s untrained vocal work, those ultra-disgusting cutaway close-ups and several specific episodes, like the notoriously banned “Man’s Best Friend,” which Kricfalusi links closely to his troubled relationship with his father.
Whether or not it’s true, Happy Happy Joy Joy feels like it was deep into production when a 2018 Buzzfeed article accused Kricfalusi of befriending a 13-year-old Robyn Byrd, whom he groomed in sexual terms and moved into his apartment when she was only 16 — a “relationship” that continued with an undercurrent of psychological abuse and left Byrd with shattered confidence and unable to find employment in Hollywood. All signs point to Byrd as having not been the only underage girl in Kricfalusi’s sphere and, both in the Buzzfeed article and today, Kricfalusi doesn’t deny the generalities of the situation, only Byrd’s darkest interpretations. So this part is not an allegation.
Cicero and Easterwood have no idea how to handle the information in that Buzzfeed story, even with Byrd as a candid, but not too candid, talking head in the documentary. As presented here, the “relationship” was almost a symptom of years of struggles after he was booted from Ren & Stimpy and not a part of a long-running pattern of behavior. Byrd’s revelations aren’t mentioned until nearly 90 minutes into the film and that’s even after she was introduced as a 13-year-old fan sending letters to the series’ creator. The directors gently push Kricfalusi for an unspecified apology, which he begrudgingly gives as part of a creepy plea for Byrd to contact him, positioning the entire situation as something unsavory and less-than-kosher, but far from borderline criminal. Make no mistake: Byrd’s Buzzfeed allegations are borderline criminal. From there, the documentary barely gets into additional accusations from the Buzzfeed article of similarly groomed young women, as well as long-running workplace harassment and more.
Kricfalusi denied many of the charges in the Buzzfeed article and doesn’t appear to have been asked to repeat those denials here, but it’s hard to stomach how his workplace “crimes” are presented as nothing worse than intense, childish and hyperactive behavior and how sanitized the documentary is up until Byrd’s on-camera accusations. And it’s unsettling how the several celebrities who appear on camera lauding Ren & Stimpy — Iliza Shlesinger, Bobby Lee, Jack Black — are allowed to give their praise for the series and none of them can give even an “Eww” to any behind-the-scenes stories. I almost want footnotes to say which interviews were conducted before the Buzzfeed story broke and which were conducted after, who had incentive to reckon with the totality of the story and who talked when it was a generally less complicated story — because a lot of the shrugging about “Boys will be boys!” rambunctiousness at Kricfalusi’s Spumco Studio plays mighty differently with this not insignificant context, context the filmmakers withhold until far later.
As Byrd says of Kricfalusi — and the bad-boy genius myth — point-blank, “It’s not necessary for someone to be like that to create great art.”
That should probably be the last word in this documentary. Probably it should be the first word as well. Naturally, it’s not. Kricfalusi has to get the last word.
Even having read the Buzzfeed story two years ago, I spent the first hour of Happy Happy Joy Joy guiltily feeling like I needed a rewatch of Ren & Stimpy — it’s an important series and there’s no pretending otherwise — and the next 35 minutes feeling dirty about the whole thing and the last 10 minutes getting actively angry about how the entire story had been framed and reduced to “difficult genius” cliches.
Production company: Invader
Directors: Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood
Producer: Ron Cicero
Cinematographer: Kimo Easterwood
Editors: Sean Jarrett, Christina Burchard, Kevin Klauber, Kimo Easterwood, Ron Cicero
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)