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The Best Animated Movie of 2015 is Already Here

The Best Animated Movie of 2015 is Already Here

In Bill Plympton’s book “Independently Animated,” the perennial underground animator recalls crashing a party filled with Disney’s finest, including Pixar head honcho John Lasseter, and being regarded as a hero. The story has symbolic weight in that it reflects Plympton’s ongoing ability to develop a body of work with his distinctive, loopy hand drawn cartoons over the course of a 30-year career without any discernible compromise. But the contrast between Plympton and his more commercially-oriented colleagues has greater resonance in the ongoing vitality of his work, with his latest feature, “Cheatin,'” providing the latest example.

READ MORE: Immersed in Movies: Bill Plympton Talks ‘Cheatin”

At this early stage of the year, with the latest Pixar release “Inside Out” still months away, it might seem premature to deem Plympton’s scrappy, wordless tale of marital betrayal and body swapping fantasy the finest animated feature of 2015. However, it’s hard to imagine any American studio movie this year — from Pixar or any of the other mainstream animation companies — that possesses the same liberating creativity found here.

Plympton produces a new feature-length work every few years, interspersing this output with various playful short films, many of which contain his most beloved creation — a snarling, minuscule guard dog whose ferocity often leads to a series of slapstick conundrums. The guard dog lands a brief cameo in “Cheatin,'” which certainly offers up Plympton’s usual devious physical comedy, but it grounds the surreal narrative in the emotional realism of passionate romance on the verge of collapse.

This is far more focused terrain than the endearing absurdity of Plympton’s last two feature-length endeavors, the Lynchian “Idiots and Angels” (in which a deplorable man inexplicably spouts angel wings) from 2008, and 2004’s teen zombie saga “Hair High.” However, “Cheatin'” offers up a fair amount of its own outlandish components.

Gliding along on Nicole Renaud’s haunting orchestral score, Plympton follows the exploits of a leggy woman and brawny man who fall deeply in love before a jealous woman schemes to pull them apart. From those basic ingredients, “Cheatin'” veers into wildly unpredictable territory, as the man gets tricked into believing his partner has been unfaithful and launches into his own bout of infidelity. She reacts with a series of vengeful acts that push the material deeper into the realm of fantasy. As usual, the pieces pile up with remarkable economy over the course of a concise 76-minute running time, building towards a chaotic finale that has the ebullient flow of a great silent film comedy.

READ MORE: Watch: Delightfully Weird Trailer for Bill Plympton’s Hand-Drawn ‘Cheatin”

In fact, there’s much about “Cheatin'” in tune with the silent era, when physical humor rarely bothered with the boundaries of credibility. From an opening gravity-defying bit involving bumper cars at a carnival (also the site of the electrifying climax), where the handsome man rescues his would-be lover from an implausible dilemma that finds her glued to the ceiling, Plympton disregards any rational basis aside from loony rules dictated by his jittery line drawings.

At the same time, there’s no doubting the underlying sentiments of the proceeding scenes, in which the couple roll about in bed and lock lips in the kitchen while various household appliances — butter melting, toast toasting — reflect the intensity of their bond. The balance of sentimentality and surface silliness percolates throughout the ensuing drama. Case in point: When the man becomes bereft over his lover’s alleged discretions, he crashes his car into the lake, only to drift onto an underwater tree branch that catapults him to safety. In Plympton’s world, melodrama and preposterousness typically work in unity.

The movie’s style owes much the constant sense of motion, with quaking lines and vibrant colors shifting about at a dizzying pace. Despite the simplicity of the narrative and its fleeting length, Plympton barrels through a series of poetically inspired sights and sounds: a delightful romantic sequence set to the celebratory “Can-Can” dance from the opera “Orpheus in the Underworld,” the power of a single tear drop to reignite the missing pupil in an empty eye socket, the path of a nefarious handcuffed police officer scuttling down the street and taking potshots at our fleeing protagonists. “Cheatin'” is gleefully enjoyable and loaded with unexpected twists at every turn.

Plympton’s outrageous universe offers such an engrossing allure that the eventual ludicrous, Rube Goldberg-like contraption that sets the stage for the concluding body-swapping act stands out as something of a distraction — it’s a pithy device that overcomplicates a story already engrossing for other, more tangible reasons. One remarkable moment finds the troubled couple’s bed cracking apart as if plagued by tectonic shifts, a ridiculous conceit that nonetheless registers in a very real way. Plympton’s characters, like the animation, have a two-dimensional quality by design. He reduces his leads to the most basic of elements, with a ridiculous muscleman and a baffled damsel in distress offering two sides of the same extremes. Their anonymity makes their situation oddly relatable.

“Cheatin'” handily arrives in theaters at the same time that another adventurous animator with a handmade approach, Don Hertzfeldt, releases his latest innovative short film “World of Tomorrow” online. The colorful, expressionistic tale of a clone contacting the child who originated her genome and sharing details from a bleak feature epitomizes Hertzfeldt’s spectacular technique, which is at once bizarre, silly and moving. Viewed together, “World of Tomorrow” and “Cheatin'” deliver a fantastic contrast to the safer bets of mainstream animation — and implicitly challenge its creators to consider something different.

Grade: A-

“Cheatin'” opens Friday in New York with a national rollout to follow. It will be available on Vimeo On Demand starting April 21.

READ MORE: Watch: Wacky Teaser for Don Herztfedlt’s SXSW and Sundance-Winning ‘World of Tomorrow’

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Peter Debruge

Hey Bluefox, Not sure what standard Eric is using in calling it the "finest animated feature of 2015." Truth be told, Bill Plympton gave CHEATIN’ an Oscar-qualifying run at L.A.’s Downtown Independent Theater in August 2014, which means that the Academy (which has nominated him twice before in the shorts category) didn’t consider it to be among the top five toons of 2014. If you’re waiting for the Academy to give him his due, that means you’ll have to hold out at least until the next Bill Plympton movie. (For what it’s worth, he does have a segment in KAHLIL GIBRAN’S THE PROPHET, which stands a strong chance at awards recognition at year’s end — and which is, sorry Eric, a finer animated feature in a year for which I hold nothing but optimism.)


The Oscars have nominated Miyazaki three times (giving him one statuette), Takahata once, Tomm Moore twice, Henry Selick once. The animation branch knows how to put an effort in nominated the right animation auteurs for the most part so far.

I think Bill Plympton ought to be due for an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature next winter.

Animation branch, you guys were able to bring Song of the Sea and The Tale of Princess Kaguya–two of last year’s best animated films—into the Oscar category this past winter. (Unfortunately, at the cost of the Lego Movie—the only viable candidate for 2014’s most defining animated film. But still, the two films you guys brought in compensated entirely for that loss.) Is it possible to do the same for Plympton this year?

I mean, what animated films are there this year that have any decent chance of awards attention?:

— Pixar has both Inside Out (inevitable Oscar nominee and likely winner) and (hopefully) The Good Dinosaur at Thanksgiving (though I can’t help but suspect that it might get pushed to next late spring).

— Disney (WDAS) is M.I.A. this year after winning two years in a row with Frozen and Big Hero 6. So…huge gaping hole to fill in there.

— Blue Sky has The Peanuts Movie, and based off the parody posters emulating those of The Grand Budapest Hotel, I think it’s going to be a great film and the only other different competition to Inside Out for Best Animated Feature.

— Based on the lack of critical positivity, Home won’t have a prayer come next winter for an Oscar nomination. The Croods, released around the same time two years ago, was a more colorful film and was better remembered (though at the expense of Monsters University when it came to the Oscars).

— Genndy Tartakovsky has a fair chance with Hotel Translyvania 2, although the surprsingly good first film didn’t exactly stretch past the Golden Globes when it came to awards recognition.

— Illumination had a fair showing with Despicable Me 2, though it had no shot at beating Frozen and was probably only nominated because it had a fairly high domestic box office take. I don’t think Minions will have that same outcome, even if those cute creatures are probably the main draw to the franchise.

— As for foreign fare, Mamoru Hosoda (of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children) has a new film—The Boy & The Beast, but I know nothing about it and I doubt whether it will gain elibility here in the States when it hasn’t even been released in Japan yet. Studio Ghibli, now on their hiatus, has When Marnie Was There (which I have seen), but it’s a quiet film and I doubt that will help any small chance it has at awards attention, though it probably will be eligible for this upcoming Oscars. I can only say less for any other anime film. However, Mark Osborne has the best chance in my opinion—a French-produced take on The Little Prince, which has an astonishing cast and foreign flavor. Also, mixing up animation styles! I have high hopes for Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, but I don’t know if a GKIDS distribution will garner it eligibility for the upcoming award’s season.

— No chances for Strange Magic or the Ratchet & Clank film at all.

So, in terms of some early Oscar forecasting, these films have some prayer at gaining a nomination:

— Inside Out
— The Good Dinosaur (if its release is assured)
— The Peanuts Movie
— Minions
— Hotel Transylvania 2
— Cheatin’
— Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) (for foreign flavor: French-produced, American-directed)
— When Marnie Was There (for foreign flavor, plus Studio Ghibli brand)

Yup. If that’s what quality animation will give us for 2015 and somehow the Academy finds enough eligible animated films to warrant a five-film Best Animated Feature category, then Plympton should get an Oscar nomination, if not for just his stature alone. ^_^

Any thoughts from you guys?

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