Non-consensual happiness and triple buttock syndrome
Stimpy’s Invention was the final episode of the first season of Ren & Stimpy in 1991. Apparently, John Kricfalusi had to beg the Nickelodeon executives to let him make it (they hated the premise), and then held it back for an insane amount of time, forcing his artists redraw everything multiple times in order to make sure it was perfect. This resulted in what I believe is a strong contender for the single greatest piece of animation ever created for television. It’s a work of demented genius, with the most outlandish posing you’ll ever see in a cartoon and one of the most moronically catchy musical numbers ever written, “Happy Happy Joy Joy” (even if you’ve never seen an episode of Ren & Stimpy, you’ve probably heard this catchphrase in some context).
It also features a deceptively simple but surprisingly edgy story. Basically, Stimpy is upset by the fact that Ren is always angry and decides to resolve the situation by creating a helmet for Ren to wear that will force him to be happy. It works a treat, but at the expense of Ren’s free weill. Stinky Whizzleteats (named after the singer of the episode’s “Happy Happy Joy Joy” song) wrote a magnificent post about this episode on SpumBoard that I think describes the episode so perfectly that, rather trying to match it with my own words, I’ve simply quoted:
Stimpy’s Invention is not only my favorite R&S episode, but it might just be the greatest animated cartoon ever made. What this episode does, much to the contrary of the discussion above is something that only the rarest of popular artworks have achieved it breaks down the barrier between writing and images. Throuhgout the entire episode, dialogue, visuals and music trade roles, never merely explaining one another. “Don’t move - I’ll go get the stay-put hat and raincoat!” That’s a visual idea, in words. Stimpy explains how his Happy Helmet works, but it’s unintended consequences are purely visual. “I told you I’d shoot, but you didn’t believe me!” Stinky Whizzleteats (the character, not me) accidentally lets slip a past event which is probably related in someway to his need to be incessantly happy and inforce the same in others. He probably had his mind controlled, and so did every single one of us in the audience. At the exact moment that we hear this, Ren is preparing to remove the helmet by force. the visual aid illiustrates not how the shooting incident happened, but why Ren ought to disassociate himself from the process of dehumanization with which Stinky’s song is complicit. It’s a complex approach to matching words with imagery, but it doesn’t break from conventional storytelling.
John K. has said that this episode “doesn’t have an ending.” I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about - it has the most compelling ending of any cartoon ever made. Ren is angry again, meaning that he is no longer being forced to be happy. Therefore, he is happy? All of us get angry sometimes, but aren’t we lucky to live in a society where that’s allowed? where we can voice our dissatisfaction with authority and mobilize to change it? But wait - let’s not forget the most important part: Stimpy never understood Ren’s problem. His simple inability to get it and leave Ren alone drove him to create the happy helmet. The helmet was evil, but Stimpy made it out of the goodness of his heart. But wait - isn’t Stimpy just a little bit sadistic? Maybe he is, Look how much he enjoys manipulating Ren! Maybe we all are….
This has been called a complex cartoon before. Those of us capable of such an understatement must shave their moustaches with a guillotine.
Apologies to Stinky for pilfering his post, but if he would rather I took it down, I will.
Anyway, here are a selection of shots from the crucial scene in which Stimpy installs the Happy Helmet and forcibly alters Ren’s personality. I challenge you to find poses this insane anywhere else.
I felt kind of bad about slating the post-John K./Spumco Ren & Stimpy cartoons so mercilessly yesterday, particularly given that I took an absolute worst-case scenario, Hermit Ren, and placed it in competition against one of the best episodes of the Spumco period, Sven Höek. Although many of the most zealous fans don’t like to admit it, a handful of decent and semi-decent episodes were actually produced after the break-up by the new studio, Games Productions. None of them matched up to the best of the early period, but a number of them were considerably better than the rest of the animated slop contaminating the airwaves then and in the years since.
One, Ren’s Bitter Half, has the distinction of being my absolute favourite Games episode. No, I don’t love it unconditionally, but I do acknowledge it as an inventive and skilfully-executed project made in an environment hardly suited to inventiveness and skilful execution. It was the brainchild of director Michael Kim, who was so passionate about the cartoon than he drew every single layout himself, with the result that the art is vastly more precise than that of any of its contemporaries. True, there are still some ugly drawings in there, but there are also a large number of original custom poses that look like serious efforts to push the acting of the characters rather than unhappy accidents resulting from artists drawing weird for the sake of it (see Hermit Ren for some of the worst examples of this ugly tendency). Colour is used inventively throughout, particularly in the backgrounds, and the cartoon has some wonderfully inspired visual moments, including a take-off of Nazi propaganda films - surely a daring move in a cartoon intended for broadcast on a children’s network. For me, what this hints at is that the Games crew could have developed an effective and distinctive style for their Ren & Stimpy cartoons, different from John K.’s approach but still valid. Kim’s influences are clearly completely different from John K.’s, but I admire any director who can put his own personal stamp on material in such a way. It’s certainly preferable to soulless, shameless rip-offs like the ones Games normally insisted on perpetuating.
Below are some shots from the transformation scene at the start of the cartoon. Similar to Stimpy’s Invention, Ren is fed up with Stimpy’s scientific experiments, and ends up becoming a victim of Stimpy’s gleefully sadistic whims. This time, Ren is split into two distinct halves, his evil side and his indifferent side. (This in itself, incidentally, points to the extent to which the characters’ personalities became overly simplified when Games took over, as there was originally far more to Ren than just evilness and indifference, but the idea is executed here with such panache that we’ll let it slide.) The effect does at times feel like a second-rate knock-off of the transformation scene in Stimpy’s Invention (posted above), but Kim gave this scene enough personality of its own for it to have reason to exist in its own right.