REVIEW: "Adventures In Plymptoons," Animator Doc Falls Flat
Such was the formula for 2007’s “Mondo Plympton.” In that compilation, an animated self-portrait guides viewers through gag sketches and selections from longform pieces. Even then, his zany cartoon shorts make everything else appear gag-inducingly unimpressive by comparison.
As a number of interviees in Adventures in Plymptoons! note, the unyielding frenetic creativity that powers his fiction defines him in a backwards way. He plays his hand cheekily, counting on baseness and fiending for small, obvious meanings. His consistent perspective is elucidated by the way he keeps things moving.
This feature-length documentary lacks that kind of distinct appeal. As an experience, nothing holds it together cohesively other than pre-fab tropes, including sit-down interviews and chronologically sequenced event recollection.
Seeing the artist plunked down in front of a greenscreen adds relatively little to fans’ understanding of this media and the human behind it. An updated portrait of the artist’s portfolio is one thing offered by Adventures, and the moments that touch on previously private parts of his life are intriguing. Footage of Plympton as a young man, sliding face first and butt naked with three men in a mud pit is brilliant like no other illustration. And yet, the glory of these moments only stokes the curiosity of interested parties. But many sectors of his life are left untouched, including his divorce and years as a political cartoonist before settling into his niche as an animator.
Viewers may be enticed by the thought of having their vision of the animator fleshed out, Plympton rendered with greater dimension than his cartoons muster. That puts more pressure on the filmmaker. His animations are exciting, and serve solely to egg on viewers’ interests. Melancholy pieces such as “The Fan and the Flower” are no exception.
At his best, Plympton’s work is oddball, packed with so much vividly graphic invention it teeters on disintegrating into pure animated jokestuff. That it’s phenomenally unlike anything else on the planet is a side effect of him pursuing a clear and common goal: to communicate his sense of humor and artistic sensibility. Asking Adventures’ talking heads to deliver a comparable grade of sublime surprise is a tall order.
Understandably, Anastasio’s attempt to deliver involves some pretty odd tactics. Some of the results are milquetoast — the film’s structure, consisting of distinctly labeling chunks, gets a bit dull by the end of the first hour. But it makes sense as an allusion to serialized pieces like 25 Ways to Quit Smoking, modeled in turn like the Goofy's How To romps.
Regarding a few more egregious turns made by the filmmaker (her choice to interview Ron Jeremy from the POV of a faux fellator comes to mind) an old photography axiom comes to mind: there’s no shame in taking a bad shot, but you probably shouldn’t show it to people.
Every work of documentary can be treated as one piece of experimental evidence, useful in studying how representational media can be constructed. The way an author demonstrates respect for the subject they’re portraying, or a lack thereof, is a considerable component of the work’s overall nature. Every author approaches their subjects uniquely. Seeing something on a pedestal is a different experience than looking through the bars of a prison.
Anastasio may have hampered by her passion, fondness and respect for the subject of her film. She could bank on his cartoons to keep things colorful, and hope that eons of interviews would turn up some valuable soundbites. This film could have used a few more hard looks over and some sound editorial advisement before being unleashed on the streets.
Whether her follow-up, the explicitly self-interested Ginger Girls, toes the same line will be determined when the film is released in its entirety. The trailer, which features even more interviewing under the flat glow of florescent lights, suggests her directorial style survives unchanged. But if Plympton’s heritage, including millions of pages of scribbly colored pencil, stands testament to one thing, it must be the powerful impact of hands-on practice.
The documentary will be available on DVD and VOD on Sept. 25.