The Complicated Legacy of Ren and Stimpy, Explained - VRGyani News and Media

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Wednesday, August 11, 2021

The Complicated Legacy of Ren and Stimpy, Explained

30 years after its debut, the beloved Nicktoon The Ren and Stimpy Show still has people talking. The series remains an absurdly enjoyable watch, but Ren and Stimpy's legacy remains messy, complex, and problematic. It's nearly impossible to separate Ren and Stimpy from its behind-the-scenes chaos, all centered around creator John Kricfalusi, because so much of what made the show brilliant was also what made it controversial, with Kricfalusi's legacy as an animator now tied inextricably with his legacy of sexual and emotional abuse.

The show itself is a beast the likes of which showbiz will never experience the same way again. It introduced the world to the volatile chihuahua Ren Hoek and “Stimpy” J. Cat, two characters who starred in what would become one of the most beloved shows of the 1990s. The Ren and Stimpy Show first appealed to viewers because it was funny, irreverent, and so remarkably different from anything else airing at the time. The series harkened back (“Hark hark, harkened he”) to the 'toons that had made animation popular in the first place. This is particularly evident in the way it closed out its episodes, with each half-hour ending with Ren and Stimpy’s version of “That’s all, folks!” — a cheery Ren telling viewers he had fun while a distraught Stimpy bursts into tears before finding newfound joy in his magic nose goblins.

Everything from its “Created by” card before each episode to its refusal to pander to anything but Kricfalusi's sick humor made it a strange mix of old and new. For the older crowd, it was as if the cartoons of yesteryear had been reincarnated as a demented chihuahua and a dopey cat. Ren and Stimpy was a classic cartoon in an era of commercial schlock, a program so out of time and out of place that it commanded attention.

It wasn't that Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, or any of the animation greats couldn't do what Ren and Stimpy did. It's that they didn't. And Ren and Stimpy was all about doing what no one thought to do. What no one dared to do. What's most impressive — and more than a bit unsettling, given what we know now — was that the show went against the grain and succeeded.

One of the show's defining elements was its texture. When Ren learns the putrid perils of his unbrushed chompers in “Ren's Toothache,” you smell the stench coming from his mouth. Thanks to some vivid close-ups, you feel a cartoon character's rotting tooth. And the series is full of similar moments. In “Space Madness,” you taste the bar of soap as a crazed Ren gobbles it up, convinced that Stimpy is after his “Ice Creeeem” bar. Kricfalusi and his team pulled audiences into the characters' experiences and refused to loosen their stranglehold on their imaginations. It forced fans into an imagination that was singularly deranged, darkly funny, and unapologetically disgusting.

It also lived to subvert expectations. Again, “Ren's Toothache” comes to mind. There's something grotesque and hysterical about putting a big-nosed man in white garb, hanging him on a pair of feeble, fluttering wings, and calling him the Nerve-Ending Fairy. The animators clearly reveled in that particular reveal, even introducing him as a feminine silhouette before shattering the illusion altogether.

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The animation style reflected Kricfalusi's partiality toward character-focused cartooning. Rather than stuff his scenes with gorgeous backgrounds and painstaking detail, the creator instead focused his talents on hilarious zoom-ins and absurdity. The result was mesmerizing, and it made blockbuster shows such as Spongebob Squarepants and Adventure Time possible.

But to honor The Ren and Stimpy Show properly, we also have to explore the brash brilliance, emotional instability, and abuse that characterized its creator.

The Ren and Stimpy Show was Kricfalusi's response to the animation industry's approach to children's cartoons, which at the time was: sell stories solely to sell toys. Enamored with cartooning for as long as he could remember, the Canada-born artist hated what animation was becoming. So, he surrounded himself with like-minded people and set about creating something he felt would stand out.

And it did. The rampant censorship of the late 1980s/early 1990s influenced the show's reliance on raunchy comedy and explosive emotion. Kricfalusi's studio, Spumco, first began work on Ren and Stimpy in the early 1990s, spending months making sure the quality of their work met their lofty standards.

It's worth mentioning, though, that the entire show wouldn't exist if it hadn't been for a network executive. If Kricfalusi had had it his way, Ren and Stimpy would have been supporting characters in Our Gang, his original pitch to Nickelodeon executive Vanessa Coffey. Unimpressed with the other elements of the idea, Coffey zeroed in on the pair and suggested more material featuring them.

Kricfalusi was a big, in-you-face personality, and The Ren and Stimpy Show reflected that. He was driven. He was talented. He was insistent. According to last year’s Ren and Stimpy documentary, Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren and Stimpy Story, his physically demonstrative pitching style captivated executives. One animator even noted the pointlessness of storyboards when Kricfalusi was present, remarking that the creator's expressiveness drew the scenes for them.

There was no question that the guy had passion. But he also had a temper. The folks at Spumco were bold, ambitious, creatively unfettered animators who all fell in line under their leader's unspoken edict: quality at any cost. This was never a formal thing, but it was absolutely something Kricfalusi expected from his team. For Kricfalusi himself, the immediate cost was often re-drawing characters and scenes a hundred times before arriving at a quality product. The ultimate price, though, was the morale of the studio's biggest trailblazers, missed deadlines, and Kricfalusi's eventual firing. Bob Camp took over the show after its creator left, but The Ren and Stimpy Show never truly recovered. Camp and company stopped producing episodes in 1995.

Kricfalusi’s abuse extended both within and far beyond the Spumco offices. Happy Happy Joy Joy reveals that in the decades following the death of The Ren and Stimpy Show, people had plenty of stories about the verbal and psychological abuse they endured while working with Kricfalusi. And as Buzzfeed reported in 2018, he had multiple sexually abusive relationships with underage girls over the course of his career. The young women, Robyn Byrd and Katie Rice, were aspiring animators who idolized Kricfalusi. Byrd, who was 13 when she first communicated with Kricfalusi directly, desperately wanted a career in animation and eventually moved to Los Angeles to live with her idol. It was during this period that much of the abuse occurred. Because of this, he has fallen even further out of the public's favor, making it tougher and tougher for most to revisit his seminal creation.

Kricfalusi's “let's see what we can get away with” attitude threw the door open for new shows to take risks. The series was revolutionary; it paved the way for some of the greatest modern cartoons ever and breathed humanity back into a sputtering corporate machine. He helped create a new generation of animators who witnessed his success and sought to emulate it. But Kricfalusi's behavior tainted the show. As inspiring and game-changing as his story often was, it also functioned as a cautionary tale. It still does.

With a Kricfalusi-less reboot on the way, Ren and Stimpy is gearing up for a comeback. Will it have the same impact as the original series? The answer is most likely “no," and your feelings about that are allowed to be complicated.

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