We watched in horror as a tuba sprouted from Judge Neal Solon's ear, which then spewed forth a dozen elephants. Neal explained that he'd been watching this DVD, and suddenly it all made sense.
"Let go with some music…it's got to come from your heart. Oh, yeah, that's from your pancreas—up a little and to the right."—The Mayor of Flooby Nooby (Marty Nelson)
In the early 1990s, animator Bill Plympton found himself attempting to do something that no one else had ever done, something that the rest of the world thought was a little crazy. Though he was not doing it for the sake of being "the first, the only," Plympton rendered the first full-length animated feature drawn entirely by one man. The end result, a collaboration with musician and long-time friend Maureen McElheron, is an 87 minute long animated comedy called The Tune.
Facts of the Case
Bill Plympton's The Tune is the story of a young songwriter named Del (Daniel Neiden) who has been put on notice by his boss, Mr. Mega (Marty Nelson), at the Mega Music Corporation. Del has 47 minutes to come up with a hit song. If he fails, he's out of a job. Worse than that, Del fears he will lose any chance he has at romance with Didi (Maureen McElheron), a secretary at Mega Music.
On the brief trip from his house to the Mega Music Corporation, Del must find inner motivation for his songwriting. Del's physical journey takes him through a surreal world in which he meets a surreal cast of characters, ranging from an Elvis impersonating dog to a cab driver without a nose. On this journey, Del also meets the mayor of a town called Flooby Nooby who will serve as his guide—his Virgil, guiding him on a journey of self-discovery.
Anyone that has seen anything by Bill Plympton is aware that the man's humor is warped. Relying primarily on visual humor and seeming non-sequiturs, the gags can be downright funny to mildly amusing. Sometimes they fall flat, as with any humor; and as with any humor, one's mood may influence how funny certain scenes and gags seem. This is exceedingly true with The Tune. Plympton's humor is so "out there," as are many of the visuals that he uses to convey this humor, that if you are not in the mood for a mind trip, you are not in the mood for this film.
Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, is convinced that The Tune "would make Bart Simpson laugh his ass off." This is, at least, what the cover of the DVD says. This is influential praise, coming from an animator with such a history and a following, yet on watching the film it rings somewhat hollow. Certainly Groening, as his creator, "knows" Bart Simpson more intimately than I can claim to, but there are only a few scenes in the film that I can imagine making Bart Simpson laugh.
There is one such scene that is reminiscent of The Itchy and Scratchy Show and its senseless, elaborate cartoonish violence. In this scene, two men argue over which way Del and Didi should travel within the Mega Music Corporation building to get to Mr. Mega's office. They spend five minutes attacking and literally defacing each other, only to reform seconds later—each time as "good as new." Scenes like this would undoubtedly capture Bart Simpson's attention, and they capture that of the viewer as well. The catch is that this scene is not indicative of the whole film.
In many ways, the nature of the creation of The Tune is apparent upon watching it. The film was put together piecemeal. Many of the funnier (and more cohesive) song sequences and extended visual gags, such as the scene discussed above, were produced first as freestanding short films.
Watching and listening to the extras on the DVD, the viewer is given the impression that this was the product of necessity. Plympton and McElheron discuss their inability to find funding for such an unorthodox project, which forced them to create, market, and sell these shorter films to finance the whole project. It also seems that the selection of these sequences as short films is because these parts of the movie are most interesting and entertaining to Plympton himself.
Certainly, many directors make short films in college or early in their careers, only to revisit them later when they have the money to turn the short into the feature-length film that they always imagined. However, it is usually the story or the characters that stick with the directors—they are the reasons to revisit the films. In Plympton's case, signs indicate that it was neither story nor character that stuck in his mind; it was specific gags. In creating The Tune, he seems to have just taped all of these gags together by creating a thin story that could believably connect the disparate incidents. His film suffers because of this construction.
The most entertaining parts of The Tune are those that were made and sold independently. Plympton seems to have invested in them the most time, as well as the bulk of his own passion for animation and for humor. The bits of story in between these scenes are secondary. They seem to be there only to loosely connect the brilliant songs and gags. The irony is that while Plympton is telling the story of an artist who is learning to put his heart and soul into the songs he creates, it feels as though Plymtpon has given very little of himself to this story, reserving it instead for the only tangentially related, free-standing sequences.
This makes evaluating The Tune as a film difficult. It has many intriguing moments. Plympton creates a world that is easy to believe in and to be drawn into. Much of the film is amusing, but as a cohesive filmThe Tune drags. It fails to make the viewer care about Del and Didi. Instead, it leaves one waiting for the next song or for the next sight gag. If you are a fan of Plympton or of offbeat visual humor, you will find a lot to enjoy here. You will also find plenty of moments apt to lose your attention.
Plympton's unique animation is presented in its original full frame format. The transfer is full of specks and blemishes that range from unobtrusive to annoying. Much of this results from the low-budget, low-tech nature of the original creation of the film. That said, while New Video and Plympton took the time to record a commentary and a documentary for this DVD release, they could have at least attempted to address the most flagrant of the blemishes.
Maureen McElheron's songs and the dialogue are presented in their original English stereo and come across very well throughout the film. Periodic moments of unintentional noise on the track are rarely, if ever, distracting. In all, the soundtrack is robust and is a respectable presentation the music and the speech.
The attention given to The Tune on this disc is notable. Included on the DVD is a decent lineup of supplements, beginning with a feature-length commentary by Plympton and McElheron. The track is engaging and informative, covering both the production of the film and some background information on its creators. Plympton and McElheron are old friends, and it comes across on the commentary track. They play off of each other well as they recall stories and facts that provide insight into the animation, the music, and the creation of the film.
Also included is a 58 minute documentary called Twisted Tunes: The Warped Animation of Bill Plympton. The documentary includes interviews with other animators and people in the animation business, along with extensive interviews with Bill Plympton and the voice cast of the movie. While the documentary briefly touches on different parts of Plympton's career, it focuses primarily on the making of The Tune. The documentary is interesting and contains behind the scenes footage of the making of the film along with a lot of interesting tidbits about its creation and Plympton's other work.
Next in the wealth of extras are a storyboard gallery and a "Bill Plympton Photo Gallery." I, for one, have never been a big advocate of photo galleries on DVD releases. Usually, they end up being tedious to wade through and provide little insight into the film or its making. These galleries are different.
The storyboard gallery shows the contrast between Bill Plympton's quick and early sketches of the characters and his finished, refined drawings. Additionally, the storyboard gives another glimpse into Bill Plympton's mind—showing the viewer which scenes and parts of scenes were, in Plympton's view, essential to record in the storyboards so as to ensure they made it into the film.
The "Bill Plympton Photo Gallery" is just what it sounds like. It is pictures of The Tune creator, Bill Plympton. There are pictures from his childhood, pictures from his first apartment in the East Village, and a wealth of pictures of him with celebrities. On most DVD releases, a gallery like this would be annoying. Here, however, the photos do quickly tell the story of boy from a small town venturing into the big city and becoming a success in the field of his dreams. Above that, the captions are funny and the inclusions seem so random—especially the shots with celebrities including Emmylou Harris and Quentin Tarantino.
Also included on the disc are a trailer for Hair High, Plympton's second feature length animated release, which had a very limited theatrical release earlier this year, audio only tracks of two songs—Isn't It Good Again? and Flooby Nooby, and a brief biography of Bill Plympton. In all, this is a fine set of extras, especially considering the limited market for such a DVD. The extras are all informative, overlap very little, and provide insight into many aspects of the film, as any good extras should do.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Tune suffers from uneven construction, and the plot is not fleshed out. As noted before, it often seems as though the plot were constructed solely to string together the songs and the sight gags. That said, some of the songs and sight gags are genius. Many of the songs, though silly, will stay with you for days. There are gags that will make you grin when you think about them again a week down the road.
The voice acting is great, and I've only realized just now that it's something I didn't address in the main body of the review. Forgetting all about it is perhaps one of the greatest compliments that can be afforded to such work. The fact that I could think and write about this movie for so long without thinking about the actors recording the character's voices is only indicative of just how unobtrusive and believable the voice work is. It is a testament to the talents of Daniel Neiden, Maureen McElheron, Marty Nelson and the rest of the cast, many of whom recorded voices for multiple characters, that this is that last thing to cross one's mind when watching and thinking about this film.
Can you tell I'm conflicted about this film? The Tune never becomes anything more than the sum of its parts. What's worse—the parts themselves are wildly inconsistent. So, lacking any greater cohesion or appeal, The Tune lives and dies by the strength of its songs and its gags. The wildness of Plympton's humor makes it harder for the viewer to empathize with the film or its characters and thus eliminates the possibility of the The Tune ever being great.
The film is worth a rent. You may find sequences that you'll want to revisit—vignettes that resonate in some inexplicable way—and you're almost sure to get at least a few chuckles out of the film. The supplements provide interesting looks into independent animation.
New Video is reluctantly released, based on the quality of the extras—though we'll be keeping an eye on their technical department. Bill Plympton is also free to go, as the court is convinced he's not dangerous to himself or to others. That said, the court would like to offer the services of the court physiologist, should Mr. Plympton ever been so inclined. Case dismissed!
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