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