Bill Plympton's fourth collection of his short films is every bit as creative, if not quite as anarchic, as his earlier work. It still is full of weird camera angles and lots of strange ideas from a strange mind. But in this collection he is giving more plot and the surrealism is being replaced by a more simple insanity. There is a lot in the package and it is a lot of fun.
Animation is a field of art in which just about anything that can be imagined can be brought to the screen. If the mind's eye can see it, it probably can be shown in an animated film. But very few animators can use this medium the way that Bill Plympton can. Plympton has a bizarre--some would say sick--mind that comes pouring out in his animation. While major animated films are going in the direction of 3-D effects and super-realistic visual effect, Plympton's style does not change. His images still look like flat colored pencil sketches (as probably many of them started) but his edge is in his imagination. Watching a Plympton cartoon is rarely so tame an experience as falling down a rabbit hole into a new world. Plympton's only rule is to break all the rules and the visual expectations of the audience. Humans morph into other objects or deform like Silly Putty. Giant hands of God drop from the sky. It is hard to say that most of his best animated films really have what could be called a plot. They are more sketchpads of ideas that usually become more and more bizarre. Like with no other filmmaker one has the feeling that anything visual can happen.
DOG DAYS is probably a little more reserved than some of Plympton's earlier work (though "reserved" is a relative term). He might previously have had lovers melting into each other or eyeballs turning into hot-air balloons and floating away. They were interesting ideas but they did not tell anything like a story. His work is more disciplined now, but there is still a very wild sense of humor behind it all. The ostensive purpose of this DVD is to show Plympton's seven independent short films that he made from 2004 to 2008. That is seven short animated films that total to about 45 minutes. That is 45 minutes of entertainment on a DVD listed for about $20. You say you're not satisfied? You say you want more for your money? Each of the film has Bill's own commentary. The DVD also includes music videos, commercials, and other commissioned films. The DVD case says that it is 130 minutes, and I suspect that does not include the commentaries. I have a suspicion that this is the whole Plympton portfolio for the interval from 2004 to 2008.
The first three films comprise his “Dog” Trilogy. They are "Guard Dog”, "Guide Dog”, and "Hot Dog”. These each have several awards listed on the case. Frankly I don't see this as his best work. The three cartoons all feature the same dog trying to function in a world he does not understand. There is too much in common among the three pieces. Maybe one would have been enough.
Next, "The Fan and the Flower" is a simple fairy tale based on a visual pun. Paul Giamatti narrates. It is entertaining but better films are to come.
Plympton really hits his stride with the last three films, all unconnected. "Shuteye Hotel" is a nasty little horror story. And Plympton's style of animation is the perfect medium for this story. Trying to do it live action might not be impossible, but it would be very hard to carry off. CGI might not be much better. Ironically we learn in the commentary that this was Plympton's one attempt to use CGI. The attempt was a fiasco except that it gave Plympton a story to tell when people suggest he use CGI.
"Santa, The Fascist Years", narrated by Matthew Modine, mixes Santa Claus and fascist imagery. It could be a riff on the cooperation pacts that some religious leaders made with fascist dictators in WWII. Plympton says it was originally just an attempt to combine religious and fascist imagery on a Christmas card, later expanded to a full film.
"Spiral" is Bill Plympton's take on abstract animated mathematical films. It begins as an experiment in mathematical form but also makes a comment. (Plympton's attack on another animator's work in the commentary is surprisingly vehement.)
Included is a large slice of his commissioned work, animation he did for other people's projects and where he was probably not allowed to exhibit his special brand of weirdness. Included is a thirty-minute Christmas show that he did for the Cartoon Network and various other items he did for cable TV, including an account of Shay's Rebellion made for the History Channel. What at first looks like a short DVD in fact has a lot of material to be seen. Several of the pieces were familiar from animation film festivals, but it is good to see them collected.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper