Proudly the exception to every rule of mainstream animation, Bill Plympton is a playful, surrealist auteur of the “mad” variety. A towering figure, Plympton’s films are loaded with a good-natured and playful form of extreme sexuality and horrific violence that has not been approximated by anyone else. He is responsible for short films like Guard Dog and the Oscar-nominated Your Face, as well as the feature films The Tune, Hair High, I Married a Strange Person, and his masterpiece Idiots & Angels. His films are all possessed of a very particular aesthetic: crisp and jerky movement, little dialogue, mostly made with colored pencils (like many animators, he eschews CGI), and set in surreal dreamlike worlds where people, animals and buildings can dramatically mutate at a moment’s notice.
Here are some samples if you don’t know him.
Director Alexia Anastasio has now made a documentary film about Plympton called Adventures in Plymptoons!, available today on DVD. The film, in a series of vignettes, attempts to dissect why Plympton is so popular with so many audiences (he is beloved by the likes of Terry Gilliam, Moby, and “Weird Al” Yankovic, who all appear, as do some prestigious animators like David Silverman and Ralph Bakshi), and why he has decided to remain independent, even when he’s been offered millions to work for bigger studios. It’s fun to look at Plympton’s work, and the film may serve as an important introduction to a filmmaker whose own iconoclastic interests and personality would make him stand apart, even if he wasn’t an animator.
Ultimately the film comes to the conclusion that Plympton is something of an enigma. He grew up in Portland, Oregon, and has been obsessed with cartoons ever since he was a young boy. He also fell in with a hippie commune early in his life, which allowed him to indulge in his primary interest: sex. His early work was Playboy-grade smut, you see. Plympton even describes his own version of heaven in the film. He’s in a theater, watching an old movie, animating with one hand, and having sex. Plympton, it seems, has some very basic, admirably childish interests. But there is no grand catharsis for Plympton, nor is there a “breakthrough” moment. Plympton seems so content just making his cartoons, and has been doing it for so long, there were no real central challenges in his life (i.e. drug addiction, public scandals, etc.) other than constantly struggling to get his films made in an ever-changing marketplace. Plympton is essentially a happy mutant who is living the dream, doodling about dogs, happy cows, and anthropomorphic anything, all of whom are playful, violent, and horny.
Anastasio is clearly a big fan on Plympton, but her film is, thankfully, not unmitigated doting praise. Sure, the bulk of Advenutres in Plymptoons! is essentially a string of recognizable faces all declaring how much they love him (why is Lloyd Kaufman there? And I guess we now know that Ron Jeremy will never turn down a gig), but the film is staged as an analysis, and asks a few pertinent, if not deeply explored, questions about animation and about Plympton’s subconscious mind. As a fan of Plympton myself, it was fun to watch. This is as close as we’ll get as a definitive word on a cult figure.