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Movie Review: Bill Plympton’s Dog Days

By Mike Everleth ⋅ January 11, 2010

Drawing of a dog standing on a fireman's head

Bill Plympton‘s animation is easy to recognize: The scratchy colored pencils, the absurdist visual humor — sometimes grotesque, sometimes not. But, when one watches several of Plympton’s short films in a row — as in watching the Dog Days compilation DVD — several other, more nuanced, details about his style become apparent.

Dog Days contains Plympton’s short films made between 2004 and 2008, one of which, Guard Dog (2004), was nominated for an Academy Award and another, The Fan and the Flower (2005), won the Annie Award for Best Animated Short Subject. Several other of the films contained on the DVD also racked up lots of awards at numerous film festivals. Seeing all of these films one right after another, it’s easy to see why Plympton was so well rewarded during this prolific period: The man was firing on all cylinders and challenging himself to create his best, most innovative work.

Guard Dog is Plympton at his classic best, even though the film marked a shift in his animation process. On the DVD’s commentary track, Plympton explains that Guard Dog is the first “film” he made without the use of film. He still drew each frame himself using colored pencil on bond paper, but rather than shoot each page with a film camera, he scanned them into a computer and produced the animation that way.

The film stars a portly, semi-grotesque canine who imagines all sorts of terrible harm coming to his master. A squirrel cuts his head off and sets it on fire, a butterfly chops him into itty-bitty pieces; plus other grisly scenarios involving grasshoppers, flowers, little children and more. The gags are all spectacularly absurd, yet wonderfully realized, and Plympton created his first truly endearing character in this well-intentioned, imaginative, but totally inadequate dog.

Again, on the commentary track, Plympton discusses how surprised he was by audience reaction to his own film. People were so thrilled by it, he felt compelled to produce a sequel, Guide Dog, and another one, Hot Dog, both of which appear on Dog Days. A fourth dog film is currently in the works. All of which is completely understandable. But, what’s truly impressive is that Plympton appears to produce the dog films when inspiration hits him, instead of churning out nothing but audience-pleasing sequels of diminishing returns.

The two dog sequels are good films in and of themselves and probably only suffer because they weren’t produced first. It’s clear Plympton really loves this character and the dog’s personality develops strongly from film to film. This is a dog desperate to please, as dogs are, and struggling to find acceptance, first at a charity for the blind and then at a firehouse, despite being completely incompetent.

The other films on Dog Days have nary a funny animal in sight. There are four non-dog films here and each one appears to be an exercise in Plympton broadening his style in both storytelling and in animation technique.

The Fan and the Flower barely looks and feels like a Plympton film in that the animation is primarily stark black and white line drawings — no colored pencils — and the story is a rare collaborative effort, done with Emmy-award winning writer Dan O’Shannon. But it’s a film that’s wonderfully sweet and touching in its simplicity about the love between two inanimate objects. Plympton’s animation, though, really gives those objects personality.

Shuteye Hotel (previously reviewed on the Underground Film Journal here) is a spooky noir-ish effort that includes an ill-fated jaunt into CGI animation. While the CGI looks great and blends well into the film, on the commentary track, Plympton was severely disappointed in the process as it took the film three times longer to make than any other short film he’s done and, with the money invested into the computer and software, the film won’t allow him to make his traditional profit from his work.

Santa, the Fascist Years is a hilarious tale about a power mad ol’ Saint Nick that’s drawn to mimic old newsreels. And Spiral is an odd mocking of structuralist animation films. On the one hand, it’s a very funny short; on the other, as a fan of structuralist animation, it seemed a bit too mean to me. But I could just be too touchy.

There’s a whole host of other features on the DVD, including one of the most bizarre — yet fantastic — collaborations ever in the history of film and music: Plympton’s music video for Kanye West’s “Heard ’em Say.” Plus, there’s another music video for Weird Al Yankovic’s “Don’t Download This Song;” plus TV commercials, commissioned film festival trailers, pencil tests and more.

However, one of the most fascinating things on the disc is a 22-minute in-depth interview with Plympton in which he discusses his personal history of illustration and animation. There are also clips from his early hits, such as Your Face and Self-Portrait.

Seeing bits from those two films remind us that Plympton was first so successful just by animating a head looking at the “camera.” But, after watching that, and going back and watching his newer films again, it’s amazing to see how accomplished Plympton has become at mastering perspective, whether it’s an evil, dive-bombing squirrel in Guard Dog or poor victims falling to their death out of the Shuteye Hotel.

A great artist continually pushes himself to produce more challenging, more involved work. Dog Days proves — as if we didn’t know it already — that Bill Plympton is a great animator and a truly great artist.

Watch a clip from Guard Dog: