Saturday, October 18, 2008

Bill Plympton's Idiots and Angels

I've always had mixed feelings about Bill Plympton. He draws beautifully. His short films always provoke a strong audience reaction. He is an inspiration as an entrepreneur, having developed his own market niche where he creates the films he wants to and makes a living at it. Where most independent animators produce shorts, Plympton has directed at least five features.

On the other hand, I think that Plympton's animation is starved for drawings. While I understand the economic necessity of limiting the amount of artwork he produces for a film, the animation and stories often feel padded as a result. While Plympton is a strong draftsman, he has trouble portraying weight and momentum in motion. Perhaps my greatest reservation about him is the shallowness of his characters. This isn't much of a problem in his shorts, which tend to be very gag driven, but becomes a larger problem in his features.

Idiots and Angels is Plympton's latest. I saw it screened at the Toronto After Dark festival where it played to a large audience and got a good response. The story is a morality tale about a thoroughly unlikeable character who sprouts angel wings. The character and the wings battle for control of the character's actions and his soul.

While many people thought that Wall-E was daring for doing without dialogue for forty minutes, Plympton has essentially made a silent feature. For eighty minutes, there is no dialogue and the storytelling doesn't suffer for it. What is lacking, however, is depth in the characterizations. With the exception of the main character, the characters' personalities do not evolve over the course of the film. Plympton is good at communicating who they are, but once their personalities are established, the characters never grow or do anything unexpected. This lack of complexity is the film's weakest point. While eighty minutes is short for a feature, the film still feels padded because the characterizations are static. Plympton adds fantasy sequences and visually interesting direction (he does some marvelous things with match cuts), but all stories are about people, and these people aren't interesting enough to fully hold our attention.

I've seen I Married a Strange Person and Hair High and think that this film is stronger than either of those features. There is no question that Plympton is advancing as a film maker, but I wish that his progress was faster. Economics may prevent him from ever putting more animation into his features, but the scripts could be improved. I wonder what Plympton could do if he had stronger characterizations to work with? Perhaps he should adapt an existing story or collaborate with another writer.

Idiots and Angels is definitely worth seeing. It contains some deft visual storytelling, some excellent gags and an intriguing premise, but I'm still waiting (and hoping) for Bill Plympton to make an animated feature that will banish my mixed feelings.

For a look at the film's trailer, go here.


Michael Sporn said...

Astute and well written, as usual.
Thank you.

Adam Pockaj said...

I've heard of Bill Plympton for a while but was never really familliar with his work (until I remembered that we watched "Your Face" in Kaj's class back in 1st year). Until last week when Nancy (the second year story teacher) showed a screening of "Hair High." It was pretty cool. Then when I heard he drew every drawing himself, it became all the more amazing. Not only is he the first person to ever make a full length animated feature film by himself, but he's made several.

I agree with your point in that the animation was pretty lacking, but I mean, considering he makes them all himself, its pretty impressive. I gotta respect that.