All of the Dark, Some of the Charm: 'Bill Plympton's Dogs & Cows'

The bonus features are the best thing on this fifth collection. The dark comedy is often a lot of fun, but is commonly a tired reach for the expected and ends up feeling dark for the sake of dark.

Bill Plympton’s Dogs & Cows

Director: Bill Plympton
Cast: Bill Plympton, Weird Al Yankovic, Dan Castellaneta, Matthew Modine, Patricia Clarkson.
Length: 130 minutes
Studio: Plymptoons
Year: 2006 - 2013
Distributor: Microcinema
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
US Release date: 2013-09-24

Bill Plympton has been active as a talented cartoonist and director for almost 40years now. I first became aware of him and his easily recognizable style in the '80s, when he was creating distinctive animated shorts for MTV. His squiggly, hand-drawn animation style and playful, if often dark, humor has been captivating to audiences for as long as he’s been drawing.

However when I popped in his latest DVD collectionBill Plympton’s Dogs & Cows and the first short The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger (2010) took the screen my first thought was “THIS is Bill Plympton?” I had to pick up the DVD case to triple check and be sure. The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger looks very little like a “Plymptoon” except for the squiggly external lines that keep each character or object on the screen in perpetual motion.

This wordless short surely feels like the kind of thing the mind of Plympton might come up with, as a calf has dreams and aspirations to become a hamburger and consistently works toward this goal until she weighs enough and then is horrified when she realizes what this entails. The short feels like the “Sheep” portion of Pink Floyd’s Animals without the revenge or justice plot. To be fair, there's nothing wrong with an artist trying new styles and techniques and breaking out of the expected. The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger, however, is a bit of a misfire and feels light years away from Plympton in style and substance.

The slick look continues with Gary Guitar (2006), a rejected pilot for a Nickelodeon series in which each character is an anthropomorphic musical instrument. While there is a bit more of the Plympton style in this and the depressing 29 second film called Waiting for her Sailor (2011), the overall feel is that of someone trying to do Plympton without quite getting the “Charm” down, but including all the weirdness (Gary Guitar) and black comedy (Waiting for her Sailor).

Summer Bummer, however, is vintage Plympton in both style (everything is constantly moving colored pencil drawings) and substance (the humor is most assuredly “dark”, but is incredibly absurdly funny, not mean-spirited). I challenge any swimming pool owner to watch this 2011 short and resist the urge to check for sharks before the next walk down the diving board.

Moving from sharks to mammals brings us yet another pilot for an unproduced TV show, this one entitled Tiffany the Whale: Death on the Runway (2012). Tiffany the Whale has a few flashes of extreme humor, especially in the humorous dialogue between the title character, a literal whale who is also a fashion model, and the other models at this particular runway show. However, Plympton stretches this one-note joke for almost nine full minutes before the short’s subtitle comes to its absurd, yet dark end. Further, Tiffany is sparsely animated with virtually no backgrounds save for blank white and a drawing style that suggests Plympton, but doesn’t scream Plympton. With slight tweaks this could have been the best and funniest part of the collection.

Horn Dog (2009) follows Plympton’s returning character “Guard Dog” as he falls in love and attempts to woo a lovely female pup with flowers and music. Famously unlucky, the proceedings come to a predictably terrifying end through no intent of (yet all of the fault of) Guard Dog himself. Horn Dog is charming and, again, looks much like the Plympton work we have grown to love over the years.

With a few exceptions, this one might actually have worked as a family short until a layer of shock and death is added to the storyline. Still, this is an overall fun short and should be a treat for any adults with that wicked sense of humor. Well, them and perhaps goth teenagers who would also appreciate Drunker than a Skunk (2013), a ball-point pen experiment set to the Walt Curtis poem of the same name.

Plympton also isn’t afraid to experiment with Guard Dog himself as exemplified by 2011’s Guard Dog Global Jam in which artists from around the world (from industry professionals to nine-year-olds) took various scenes of an early Guard Dog short and recreated them in their own styles. The results are a little jarring at times, especially as styles shift so rapidly, but the overall result is an impressive success. Hand-drawing, Claymation, CGI, pen and ink and more are all merged here.

If the original short this had been based on was included it could make for an interesting comparison and contrast (especially considering the fact that many of the animation shifts make the storyline hard to follow). The original short’s exclusion is a serious missed opportunity for this collection.

Perhaps the boldest experiment found in Dogs & Cows is Plympton’s impressive eight and a half minute short The Flying House (2011). Here Plympton takes the 1921 animated short Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend: The Flying House by Windsor McCay, colorizes it in the Plymptoons style and then adds music and the voices of Patrica Clarkson and Matthew Modine as the couple who avoid foreclosure by turning their home into an airplane. Yes, Flying House is as weird and absurd as it gets, but is also engrossing and exciting both as a fun fantasy and as a modern experiment.

Dogs & Cows is among the rare DVDs in which the bonus features are better than the main content of the film. In the “Commissioned” section, we see music videos like Weird Al’s “TMZ” and TV commercials like those for AccounTemps and eDIT. However in the “Oddities?” section we find a number of often sexy and fun selections of Plympton’s animation.

This includes two versions of Plymptons version of the “Couch Gag” from The Simpsons, both of which are heavily laded with Plymptonian dark humor, but both of which are engrossing treats for animation fans. This section of the disc also includes a documentary on Plympton, his life and his style, including some great glimpses of his best work. There is also a commentary track by Plympton.

These extras are the best thing on Cats & Dogs which is, admittedly, a must for Plympton fans but a hard sell for casual viewers. The dark comedy is often a lot of fun, but is commonly a tired reach for the expected and ends up feeling dark for the sake of dark. There are moments of excellence, but they may or may not warrant the full price of the disc, especially when comparable quality versions of many or most of these shorts can be viewed online for free. Then again, getting fans to pay for a collection of shorts they can watch on the house is a joke worthy of a Plymptoon in and of itself.


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