Review by Roger Ash
I first became familiar with animator Bill Plympton’s work back in the ’80s, when I saw some of his shorts including “Your Face”, “25 Ways to Quit Smoking”, and “How to Kiss” as part of animation festivals. I appreciated their hand-drawn, scratchy look and Plympton’s wacky, off-beat sense of humor. I wasn’t the only one, as his shorts were festival favorites and even caught the eyes of people at MTV who hired him to do some work for them. Plympton has gone on to become the sweetheart of indy animated films, drawing six animated features by himself and continuing his shorter work, as well as doing music videos for Weird Al Yankovic and Kanye West. Combining that history and my enjoyment of his films, I was looking forward to learning more about the man and his work in the documentary Adventures in Plymptoons!, directed by Alexia Anastasio.
Adventures in Plymptoons! is a biography of Plympton, so while I learned much more about him, I didn’t learn a lot more about his work. The 85-minute film consists of a number of talking head interviews with Plympton and others, interspersed with clips from his shorts and features. Some of the interviews are quite fascinating, including those with Plympton himself, animation historian Jerry Beck, director Terry Gilliam, Disney animator Tom Sito, indy animation legend Ralph Bakshi, and others who have worked with Plympton over the years. A particularly fun sequence features comments from two critics intercut with each other, one who appreciates Plympton’s work and one who can’t stand it. It’s interesting to hear such contrasting views, which I’d guess reflect how many others see his work.
On the other hand, there were some interviews which left me scratching my head in confusion. Ed Begley, Jr. appears mainly to make a joke. Adult film star Ron Jeremy makes a baffling appearance, as his only connection to Plympton that I’m aware of is that they’ve both been part of the porn industry; Plympton had some early work published in Screw magazine. Keith Carradine appears to sing a song about Plympton. None of these segments, and there are others as well, added anything to the story of Plympton. And then there were some missed opportunities, as when independent producer and head of Troma Films Lloyd Kaufman appears, and instead of discussing filmmaking, he sings a song with Plympton.
One of my favorite sequences in the film is when Plympton and musician Maureen McElheron discuss their collaboration on the Academy Award-nominated short “Your Face”. That cartoon features a man singing a sappy love song about his lover’s face while his own face goes through an amazing and hilarious series of transformations. This, along with a few other sequences, gives a nice behind-the-scenes look at how Plympton works and how he develops the ideas for his films. Unfortunately, most of the clips from his films are presented with no context aside from the title. While they look nice, I wasn’t sure exactly was going on or why specific clips were included.
Animtor Tom Sito comments in Adventures in Plymptoons! (and I’m paraphrasing) that Bill Plympton is the exception to the rule. You’re told as an animator and as a filmmaker that there are things you can’t do, and people follow that advice — except for Bill Plympton. He does them. That spirit of independence, that devotion to your work, that drive to succeed should be celebrated. In Adventures in Plymptoons!, it is. And even though there were things I thought could have been done better in the film, I’m glad someone decided to tell Bill Plympton’s story.
Adventures in Plymptoons! is not rated, but the DVD contains a warning that it contains adult material, which should be heeded as sex and violence play a part in many of his films, and some may find the images disturbing or offensive. There are a handful of special features on the disc, including the trailer for the movie; a short film; what looks to be home video footage of Bill Plympton Day in Portland, Oregon; what amounts to a commercial for Plympton’s book, Make Toons That Sell Without Selling Out; and my personal favorite, a look at his upcoming feature, Cheatin’. (The studio provided a review copy.)