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"Adventures in Plymptoons": Where Funny Ha Ha Meets Funny Peculiar

Bill Plympton is the poster boy for independent animation. Since his breakout in the mid- to late-1980s he has had an astounding career that combines an idiosyncratic style, an ambitious production slate, financial success, and genuine independence. The indie landscape is littered with compromised careers, from Ralph Bakshi to John Kricfalusi to Will Vinton, but Plympton somehow manages to keep going, with few (if any) visible setbacks. As one commentator in Adventures in Plymptoons puts it, he is the asterisk in independent animation: No one can do X*, we are always told. *–except Bill Plympton.

ImageHow has he done it? That is one obvious question that a documentary like Adventures in Plymptoons might try to answer. Who is the man who has, with acrobatic ease, mastered the most difficult trick in film making? That’s another obvious question. Does the secret lie in his films, in his career acumen, in his personal habits, or all three? That’s a third set of obvious questions.

None of them, unfortunately, get a satisfying answer.

The mystery of Bill Plympton floats on the very surface of his films. The shorts are little fantasias of surreal imagery and cartoony jokes. In “Your Face” a crooner’s own features distort in alarming fashions as he sings about his lover’s face. In “The Wiseman,” a gnomic savant metamorphoses while spouting New Age clichés and nonsense. “25 Ways to Quit Smoking” argues for 25 nicotine-breaking techniques that would be even more fatal than the weed habit. The feature-length films, like The Tune, often wander from place to place via dream logic. Plympton’s work has none of the polish of big-budget animation, and his colored pencil-work looks scratchy and even ugly at times. Movements are liquid but never fluid. They look like schoolboy doodles come to life. But they throb with a febrile inventiveness, persistently, even helplessly topping themselves with yet more outrageous imagery. They seem to be about nothing, but also about everything, for anything might get captured within their funhouse-mirror surfaces, to be distorted and torn apart in every conceivable way. It seems very odd that such oddities as “Tango Schmango,” “Push Comes to Shove” and “Dig My Do” (to name some of the classics) should have captured our permanent fancy instead of suffering a transient and faddish interest. And yet his career has mirrored a film like “Your Face,” with one grotesquerie succeeding on another even while remaining anchored to a solid, even static, foundation–in this case, a foundation of success.

ImagePlympton, we learn from this documentary, hails from Oregon, but not from its tonier districts. Although his family was comfortably well off–his father was a banker–they come from the same “white trash” region that yielded Tonya Harding. He didn’t have a hard-scrabble childhood–unlike some classmates, who during deer season literally hunted for food–and he used the National Guard to escape from Vietnam. (He tells a funny story of how his refusal to learn to fire a gun didn’t result in a court martial but in a job as the company cartoonist.) His first really outrageous bit of artwork emerged after he took acid. He did art for the porn industry. At some point–and the documentary is a little hazy on this bit–he started animating. After gaining the notice of the establishment with “Your Face,” the Walt Disney Company, which wanted him to work on the genie for Aladdin, offered him a million dollars–and he turned them down. He opened his own studio, and eventually shifted into feature production.

He was ambitious and he worked hard. That much he says at the very start of the documentary, to the question of why he became successful. But most successful people–except lottery winners–can say as much. More details would be nice, even if Plympton himself needn’t provide them. Some of his success, he and others will cheerfully admit, also derived from the luck of the moment. The late 1980s were a period when animation was undergoing a resurgence. There were festivals where his work could be showcased, and home video could offer a stream of money. Though this doesn’t get said, his striking early success at the Oscars may have elevated him quickly to a level where he wouldn’t feel the need to bow to Fox Kids, Kids’ WB!, or Nickelodeon to get work. His style and work methods were also admirably suited for commercials, which were a venue that prizes artistry and creativity so long as they also sell a product–a much different venue than mass entertainment, which grinds the idiosyncratic down to the lowest common denominator.

He also comes across as being very modest and very ordinary, with none of the character crotchets that have ended lots of animation careers, and with none of the high-blown ambitions or egomania that have bankrupted other enterprises. He gives the impression of being a grown-up kid, but of a special sort: the quiet middle-schooler who sits in the back and pays just enough attention to pass his classes while he doodles pictures of naked girls in his notebook. That kind of thing is often enough to win one a modest and indulgent popularity in school, and Plympton seems to have carried the same low-key approach into his career.

ImageThat much, at any rate, is what we learn from Adventures in Plymptoons. It is enough to sustain interest, and it has some interesting archival bits: old photo and home movies of the animator; reminiscences by family members and high school friends; cameos by such luminaries as Terry Gilliam and Ralph Bakshi and Ron Jeremy. About halfway through its 85-minute running time it starts breaking up into short segments with titles like “How to win an important award” that seem intended to echo Plympton’s own work. And there is more than a little nonsense along the way, as when Ed Begley Jr. learns to his consternation that he’s being interviewed for a documentary on Bill Plympton and not Bill Clinton. But none of it really coheres.

It would help if Adventures in Plymptoons had a thesis: “This is how Bill Plympton managed to craft his remarkable career” or This is what his films mean or show us.” Failing that–and maybe his career is so surreal it can have no thesis–it might have adopted a definite form, as a biography of the man or an extended essay on his films or the life of an independent animator, but the film is too fey and scatterbrained to give us that. In an extremity, it might have deconstructed itself into a Plympton-like feature or compilation of its own, and given us a fragmented and semi-surrealist glimpse into the Plympton universe. Toward the end, as I’ve said, it wanders into such an approach. But coming after some fairly straight biographical material, it just feels like the filmmakers gave up on assembling a conventional film and tried to make a virtue of their mess of undigested material.

Here is one thing the documentary is definitely missing: a close examination of how Plympton conceives of and crafts his films. Does he begin drawing and then follow his inspiration until he is finished? Does he plan his films around the germ of an idea and develop them fully before committing them to paper? Does he generate great masses of doodles and ideas and then select those that can fit together into the “idea” of a film or short? There are hints that Plympton is a very fast worker who doesn’t linger and agonize during the process. That may be one of his blessings, that he is very good at doing what he loves to do, and that what he loves to do naturally emerges in a very successful way. Adventures in Plymptoons gives the impression that it was conceived and compiled in a similar, but facile and devil-may-care way: as a finished portrait of the man that would emerge from lots and lots of material. But it is not as successful as the typical “Plymptoon.”

ImageThis isn’t to say that Adventures in Plymptoons isn’t worth your while; on balance, I would even recommend it. Bill Plympton’s cartoons are so strange that it is easy to assume the man behind them is very strange as well. His very normality–his quiet cheer and openness–is a great and wonderful surprise, and Adventures in Plymptoons is at its best when it just lets him talk in his gentle, confident way about himself and his career. It must have been hard not to take inspiration from his lunacy, and to try having fun alongside him. But it would have been a better film if they had resisted, and had taken their cue from the man himself rather than his oeuvre.

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