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A Primer on Plympton: The Animator At His Best With “Idiots and Angels”

A Primer on Plympton: The Animator At His Best With "Idiots and Angels"

Animators are generally an odd, whimsical bunch, but the studios have figured out how to tame them. Many of the latest refined animated offerings from Disney and Dreamworks mask the unkempt artistic voices behind them. In a healthy contrast, the entire career of Bill Plympton represents that rarefied breed of animator unmuzzled by the Hollywood filter. Still churning out his distinctly bizarre handcrafted shorts and features from a ramshackle Manhattan studio, Plympton’s scruffy lunacy knows no bounds.

Two years after its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, Plympton’s dark comic noir “Idiots and Angels” has finally landed a limited theatrical release, which is certainly better than no release at all. Now in his early sixties, Plympton has made his sixth and most accomplished feature, the surrealistic tale of a crude man forced into heroism by the sudden growth of angel wings on his back. Absurdly kooky but always captivating, the movie explores the crevices of Plympton’s wildly active imagination, melding the sublime and the ridiculous into a uniquely provocative work of art: Prototypical Plympton.

For over thirty years, Plympton’s zany vision has manifested itself in a series of unforgettably trippy shorts and features. His first Oscar-nomination came with 1987’s “Your Face,” a short that exclusively featured a malleable, gravity-defying visage restlessly expanding and contorting into countless shapes. Even without the slightest plot, “Your Face” provides the ideal access point to Plympton’s baffling universe. Throwing physics to the wind, Plympton uses the human body like silly putty, shifting it around with an internal logic that’s mesmerizing to behold, transcending laughter and making it easy to forget the underlying ridiculousness of the spectacle at hand.

When Plympton does take on the reigns of narrative, he usually makes room for off-the-wall tangents that both work with the story and exist outside of it. His first feature, “The Tune,” finds a despondent composer embarking on a quest for the perfect song. The movie embodies his constant inability to focus, at one point settling, for several minutes, on the sight of two men engaged in a deadpan battle to destroy each other. They poke, prod and maim in vain. Eventually, Plympton cuts back to his protagonist. “Why am I watching this?” he wonders, and so do we, but only after the fact. Such is the joy of a vintage Plymptoon.

Plympton pushes boundaries with a penchant for viscera that rivals the best Troma productions. “Taste is the enemy of creativity,” reads the Picasso quote opening Plympton’s 1997 sophomore feature, “I Married a Strange Person!” What follows, the image of two birds fornicating in mid-flight, marks the tamest visual in this hilarious 72-minute metaphor for marital discontent. When an electrically-altered husband gains psychic abilities, his powers amount to a sexual prowess that allows him to craft his wife’s breasts like balloon sculptures and otherwise alter her appearance. Here and elsewhere, Plympton’s juvenile sensibility reflects the primal appeal of his work.

Rendered in visibly jittery lines and colored pencils, his characters often resemble images in motion rather than full-on animations, as if a Looney Tunes cartoon made love to a Ralph Steadman sketch. As a result, his movies feel like uneven guides to the unusual patchwork of his mind. Plympton’s recurring Guard Dog creation, which he’s fond of calling “my Mickey Mouse,” eagerly seeks to please his various masters and routinely comes up short. His happy-go-lucky spirit seems like a symbol for Plympton’s fidgety, naive inventiveness. Not every Plympton gag sticks, but the persistence of his inspiration sustains the unifying power of his oeuvre.

Planet Plympton is a wondrous, creepy and unequivocally wacky place. At once poetic and grotesque, Plympton’s art bears a close resemblance to the sensibilities of early Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, the latter of whom lent his name to “Idiots and Angels” as a presenter. It deserves that extra push. Unlike his previous features, the movie has zero dialogue, a welcome decision that liberates his style. A goofy but nonetheless legitimate noir combined with element of fantasy, “Idiots and Angels” functions on a far deeper level of poignancy than anything preceding it in the Plympton canon, feature-length or otherwise.

Plympton cites David Lynch as an inspiration for the movie’s eerie illogical twists, but the emphasis on physicality (the man initially tries to remove his wings, then learns to embrace their power and fends off the scheming of an evil physician attempting to exploit them) gives “Idiots and Angels” a warm slapstick appeal — more Keaton than Chaplin, it’s a delirious cinematic chronicle of an everyman learning to do the right thing.

Satiric insights permeate Plympton’s movies. In “Strange Person” and “Mutant Aliens,” he expresses disdain for the military agents, government leaders, and advertisement executives. He takes on 1950s fashion in the zombie rom-com “Hair High.” With “Idiots and Angels,” he mocks the universal theme of conscience itself. The reluctant angel eventually embraces his role, but he’d still prefer to sleep in.

Over the years, Plympton has been a reluctant angel on his own terms. A highly individualistic artist against all odds, he upholds a tradition that was pronounced dead ages ago, when seminal animator Windsor McCay allegedly told a group of New York disciples in the late 1920s that “animation should be an art…but what you fellows have done with it is [make] it into a trade.” Plympton’s amusingly erratic, heavily personalized animation offers the best rebuttal to that ever-potent challenge.

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