John Kricfalusi: A Critical Review
by Jon Prentice
January 6, 2004
Event took place on December 4th & 5th, 2003,
at the Seattle Art Museum, Washington
The following is a critical look at the animation of modern day cartoon legend John Kricfalusi — creator of “Ren & Stimpy” — as well as the man himself.
photo: Wendy J. Hall
Let me preface this review by qualifying myself as a long “Ren & Stimpy” fan who has been greatly influenced by John K’s work. His authentic emulation of 1940s cartoon animation is undeniable. Most notably he cites the Classic era of Warner Brothers, Chuck Jones etc.
John K is to be credited much for breathing new life into television cartoons, to the point of being chastised greatly by the producers because he and his animators “drew TOO MANY DRAWINGS.” This he stated over and over as being the key fundamental separating him from the crowd. He boasted (justifiably) at great length about how the entire industry jumped on board to mimic the aesthetic qualities of his productions.
I for one wholly recognize that while the animation industry was able to imitate the hallmark background art and other graphic stylings, they missed the boat when it comes to the aspects at the very heart of the FORM that drove much of “Ren & Stimpy.”
This FORM is to be found in everything from the ACTION to the economical use of HOLDS, to the ACTING that went into each production. Indeed, the large-scale production houses these days are simply unwilling to spend the money to crank out quality animation. Knock-offs such as “Cow and Chicken” attempt to replicate the style on the surface, but when you look closely at the animation, it simply isn’t there.
It’s cheaper to focus on dialog driven concepts with annoying voices. Of course it must also be added that John K is also infamous for pushing the boundaries in terms of subject matter, thus getting him fired by Nickelodeon. “They showed up one day with a big truck and took all the drawings.” He lost the rights to “Ren & Stimpy,” and during his absence the series failed miserably, lacking the edge that was the backbone of its substance. “But they came back,” he smiled confidently.
During the evening we were privileged to see episodes of Ren and Stimpy never previously seen, such as the episode that got him fired featuring “George Liquor.” We also saw new episodes slated to air on the “Spike” network which targets the young male demographic.
Episode included: “Ren Seeks Help” (Ren confesses to Mr.Horse his childhood history of tormenting animals); and “Naked Beach” (the name WOULD say it all were it not for John K’s ability to transcend his subject matter to abstract and surreal proportions). Both of these new works are evidence that the powers that be have finally recognized Ren and Stimpy for what it was all along: cartoons aimed at adults. Thus his re-instated control over the famed cartoon.
Normally, I am turned off, if not offended, by the “Sick and Twisted” genre, sophomoric humor, or anything that is flagrantly demeaning of women, etc. while I acknowledge that “Naked Beach” can and probably did bother some feminists in the audience (I considering myself one), due to the extremely well-animated ideas expressed in it, I was helpless to prevent myself from the uncontrollable laughter that ensued. I thought I would experience pain for several days after the sidesplitting onslaught. Bizarre visual ideas that can only be conveyed by someone with complete and utter mastery of the 2-D classical cartoon.
Such subject matter does reveal a certain … narrowness about the man behind the acme-punched cels. This impression I had was reinforced during the Q&A sessions at the end of each night. Repeatedly asked about Flash, John K admonished the budding medium as inadequate. Apparently John is still dwelling in the days of the Internet’s infancy, unaware that the medium, as any digitally savvy animator knows, is growing more and more robust by the second.
When asked what he thought of the National Film Board of Canada, an institution credited with greatly enriching the world of animation, John replied sarcastically, “I dunno. Do they still exist?” C’mon, dude! You’re from OTTAWA for cry’n out loud!
Asked about his opinion of the brilliant Don Hertzfeld, John had absolutely no idea who the man was: an artist on par with John’s own brand of unique (if strange) humor. It’s too bad that John is unaware of all of the creative possibilities around him.
To be fair, he has firmly planted himself in the deep fertile soil of the 2-D, traditionally animated cartoon. And he has relentlessly churned out scores of unique ideas within that arena, such as the modern Yogi Bear and BooBoo cartoons.
His abstract portrayals of Ranger Smith deconstruct the character’s archetype, depicting him as a fascist authoritarian. He played with all of the various walk cycles used for Ranger Smith over the years, mixing them up and cramming them all into one scene, because, as John said, “it seemed as though they (Hanna-Barbara) never had model sheets for the character. He was drawn completely different in every episode.”
I loved his gruff voice and matter-of-fact delivery, as well as the way he was solidly rooted on the stage as he gesticulated and spoke. And of course he treated us to a live, on-the-spot REN impersonation. “OH what I’m going to do to YOU. FIRST, I’m going to pull your ARMS out of their SOCKETS!”
From then on it was easy to detect his voice in some of the other characters, such as “George Liquor,” whom John says is modeled after his dad. With flannel shirt and faded jeans, John came across more like some guy you’d hire to fly you in a seaplane up into the remote northern reaches of the Canadian wilderness. And he is to be commended for sticking around after the show, diligently sketching out Rens, Svens, and Stimpys for fans until everyone had left.
photo: Wendy J. Hall
The bottom line is that, like many famous artists, John K is simply another human being. He’s obviously NOT a religious deity or a saint. Don’t expect him to be an avant-garde micro cinema God ala Norman McLaren or Oskar Fischinger, and don’t expect him to be a leading champion for women’s rights.
He may be limited in terms of what he does, or who he is, but within that framework he is an unparalleled master. As an animator myself, I understand how demanding the art form is. The incredible amount of focus and immersion it requires just to complete one minute of quality work almost inherently results in a sort of tunnel vision. It is understanding how one can lose site of various details in the world at large. For this reason I can forgive John his shortcomings. His contribution to the cartoon animation canon speaks for itself.
Jon Prentice is an animator living and working in Seattle, Washington, with his own collection of shameless biases, opinions and character flaws. He can be reached at email@example.com