One aftershock of the ongoing #MeToo reckoning is that fans have had to do some reckoning of their own. The question looming over so many scandals is whether it’s possible to keep loving a cherished piece of art after the full, damning truth about its maker comes to light. Happy Happy Joy Joy, a new documentary about the proudly deranged, frequently brilliant Saturday-cartoon sensation The Ren & Stimpy Show, really has no choice but to address the recent revelation that series creator John Kricfalusi used his fame to groom and sexually exploit underage girls. But just as that information has complicated diehards’ relationship to the dog-and-cat duo of their childhood (“It’s a stain on the show’s legacy,” one talking head says of Kricfalusi’s transgressions), it’s also complicated the story told by this nonfiction account. When the movie does turn to the predatory behavior, it mostly feels like an aside; one gets the distinct impression that the filmmakers had to scramble to insert some uncomfortable new material into their otherwise completed documentary.
Which isn’t to say that directors Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood would have presented some wholly hagiographic portrait of Kricfalusi had one of his victims not come forward two years ago. Much of Happy Happy Joy Joy is made up of interviews with the creative team behind Ren & Stimpy—writers, animators, Nickelodeon executives—and there’s no shortage of anecdotes that paint Kricfalusi as an uncompromising control freak, a demanding boss, and an artist with some rather serious anti-social tendencies. All of that, of course, has been wrapped up in the creator’s whole outsider-cool, rock-star mystique since the early ’90s, when he turned the episodic adventures of a short-tempered Chihuahua and his sweetly moronic feline companion into the highest rated show on cable television. “He was the Andy Warhol of animation,” one past collaborator gushes, and for much of its running time, the film appears to be telling a very old, very familiar story of creative genius bumping up against corporate demands and self-destructive hubris.
Assembled in a brightly accessible pop-documentary style that clashes a little with the artfully anarchic spirit of the show it’s celebrating, Happy Happy Joy Joy offers a straightforward oral history of Ren & Stimpy, recounting the genesis of the characters, the instant (and profitable!) controversy the series provoked, and Kricfalusi’s infamous battles with the network. The creator’s eventual fallout with Nickelodeon and firing from the show has been covered ad nauseam elsewhere—by now, fans are well acquainted with stories of blown deadlines and content disputes. But it’s interesting to hear them from the perspective of those who worked closely with Kricfalusi—particularly producer Vanessa Coffey, whose insights into the process of making the show (and navigating around the ego of its mastermind) offers a rejoinder to the general notion of Nickelodeon as little more than an impediment to the animator’s daring vision.
Kricfalusi gets his say as well, in interview snippets that move from revealing to evasive, sometimes within the space of a single thought. Happy Happy Joy Joy presents a version of the artist as at once self-aware (he recognizes plenty of his himself and his faults in Ren’s emotional instability) and resistant to taking responsibility for his professional missteps. The film is actually perhaps most interesting—and most valuable to the initiated—as a piece of criticism-by-creator. Kricfalusi and his team (including Bob Camp, who eventually took over the show after Kricfalusi’s termination) are keenly aware of what made Ren & Stimpy so special, in all its demented glory—not just the beautifully repulsive animation, not just its push against the boundaries of good taste and kiddie-entertainment formula, but also its unprecedented emotional intensity. (One amazing detail: The animators studied Kirk Douglas as a model for Ren and Stimpy’s unhinged and overwrought facial expressions.)
Eventually, the film must address the elephant in the room, and it does so mostly through the memories of Robyn Byrd, who was 13 when she began corresponding with Kricfalusi through fan letters and 16 when she came to Los Angeles to live with him. Happy Happy Joy Joy doesn’t paper over this shocking chapter of the story, which broke when Byrd spoke to Buzzfeed in 2018; the filmmakers even bluntly question Kricfalusi about it. Yet these scenes still seem disconnected from everything around them, in part because Cicero and Easterwood don’t examine the look-the-other-way office culture that Kricfalusi cultivated at his animation house, Spümcø. That his habit of dating minors was an open secret (he’d speak often of his “16-year-old girlfriend”) is barely broached. It would, of course, be unreasonable to expect a full exposé from a documentary about the making (and unmaking) of a hit cartoon—especially given that Byrd’s revelations likely arrived after much of the interviews were shot. Still, it’s hard not to see the holes in this behind-the-scenes account, which generally conforms to a romantic notion of Kricfalusi as a tortured underground artist too edgy for the system—the very kind of self-mythologizing he used to lure teenage girls into his orbit.
“Don’t think about him,” Byrd advises fans of the show, encouraging them to separate the art from the artist who took advantage of her. Yet as Happy Happy Joy Joy makes repeatedly clear, Ren & Stimpy was, in many respects, a pure expression of Kricfalusi: He poured many of his obsessions, his hang-ups, his character flaws, and his warped personality into these cartoons, which he somehow then convinced a kids’ cable network to beam into households all over the country every week. One thesis the film offers is that contemporary animation’s elevation and embrace of the auteur goes back to Kricfalusi and the importance he conferred on the “created by” credit. That makes it tricky, though, to truly look at these classic episodes and not see the man behind them. For fans reluctant to abandon Ren & Stimpy, maybe the key lies in the authorship question Happy Happy Joy Joy grazes—the implication that some of the show’s magic lay in the way the rest of the team humanized, rather than just amplifying, Kricfalusi’s sensibilities. After all, even in the most creator-driven animation, there’s really no such thing as a one-man operation.