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Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story

By: Trevor Chartrand

While entertaining and informative, Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story is a documentary with two very different and almost contradictory goals.  On the one hand, the film takes a mostly light-hearted look at the making-of a beloved animated series.  But on the other hand, however, the doc is also a dark character study featuring the disturbing behaviours of Ren and Stimpy’s show creator, John Kricfalusi.

What the film suffers from the most is the apparent censorship of the material, mostly from the interview subjects.  There’s a very shady story brewing here, but the animators featured in the film seem almost too respectful of Kricfalusi – or possibly too scared of him – to paint the complete picture.  We get catchphrases and keywords like ‘drill sergeant’, or ‘dictator,’ and the repeated fact that he was a challenging man to work for.  There aren’t many specific examples of him at his worst though.  In that sense, this is a film that respects the subject, and while that’s certainly admirable on the filmmaker’s part, let’s be honest: audiences want the gory details.

As the film goes on, the morality of the man is cast further and further into question to the point where the restrained, unbiased approach taken by the film seems almost undeserved.  By the time we learn about Kricfalusi’s abusive relationships with underage interns, the film appears to be almost too generous to a man who maybe doesn’t deserve to be admired.

Having said that, John’s career is certainly a notable one.  He’s clearly made a lasting impression on all of his colleagues.  Talented and revered as an innovative pioneer in the cartoon industry, John ultimately appears to lack the people skills required to really go the distance in his field.  Happy Happy Joy Joy does a decent job of humanizing him, most notably with the examination of his relationship with his father – personified in his cartoon character George Liquor.  The film does illustrate that he’s a troubled guy, and he certainly appears to have regrets about his past.  How sincere he is may not be clear, but despite all his faults there is an effort made to redeem him as much as possible, likely to keep the film light and accessible.  Now this is where this movie really needed to make a decision – is it going to be a smear campaign against John, or a DVD extra about the making of a television series?  Unable to decide between the two, we get a slightly uneven film that does a bit of both.

Happy Happy Joy Joy does have a fun animation style and a very creative and appropriate look.  Often transition sequences are animated, and archival footage is framed in a cartoon drawing of an older television set, which helps transport the viewer back to the era, ideally, when they would be watching Saturday cartoons in front of a similar TV.

Overall, Happy Happy Joy Joy is a strong documentary that will appeal to both Ren and Stimpy fans, and outsiders alike.  The film skirts the details, which might be for the best (there’s certainly some things I don’t want to know), but the film also may leave viewers wanting more than just ‘read between the lines.’  It’s an interesting look at a complicated man, and also an informative piece about how cartoon shows are produced and made.

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