Bill Plympton has spun out some of recent animation’s most brilliantly surreal moments, but when extended to feature length, as in “Mutant Aliens” (2001) and “Hair High” (2004), his flights of fancy slip into auto-pilot. “Cheatin’” is the first of his films to deliver a complete creative ride, with only a few bumps along the way.
Without dialogue other than eloquent grunts, sighs, and jabbering, and with a soundtrack that includes an evocative, melancholy score by Nicole Renaud and assorted numbers by Verdi and Ravel, it melds the lyrical and the grotesque with a subtle pastel palette. It bursts with dazzling metamorphoses throughout and each contributes to the cinematic fugue. Though the narrative lapses into gender stereotypes and involves plot twists that verge on contrivance (but then what great animated movie doesn’t?), the overall effect is pleasingly oneiric and ruefully comic. Plympton will be cheated if “Cheatin’” doesn’t at least get nominated for a best animated feature Oscar.
In a circular, wavery, Magritte-like world inhabited by elongated characters reminiscent of Robert Crumb and Tex Avery, Ella (Sophia Takal), a haughty, lissome looker crowned with a broad-brimmed bonnet, sashays down a winding street engrossed in a book. Men leer in satyr-like close-ups but leave her otherwise unmolested until she arrives at a carnival and distracts customers gathered at a bumper-cars ride. Annoyed by the competition, the barker harasses Ella until she finally takes a ticket herself and boards one of the gland-shaped vehicles. A series of impossible but logically ordered near-disasters follow, made uncanny by the violently skewed perspective. When at last Ella finds herself in a bizarre, seemingly fatal fix, Jake (Jeremy Baumann), a freakish caricature of ideal male beauty, saves her.
It is love and lust at first sight, a transformation that Plympton illustrates with an extended conceit that begins with Ella reaching through the locked door of her bosom, penetrating through a series of portals including a jack-in-the-box, a barking dog, and a blooming rose, to arrive at her shrunken heart. This she carries into a Freudian nightmare in which giant, fire-breathing snakes attack her, a fantasy that dissolves into a sweaty scene of athletic connubial ecstasy. Seldom has the romance, terror, and carnality of an ideal marriage been better illustrated.
But then the usual suspect intrudes — a covetous, oversexed femme fatale — who resorts to deception to lure Jake into infidelity. Plympton partially recovers from this and other sexist stereotypes by introducing the magician El Merto (Jacob Steele) and his “Trans-Soul Machine,” a pod-like device that combines elements of “Being John Malkovich” and David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” and goes a long way to empowering Ella and vindicating her sexuality. Despite its lapse into bad faith, “Cheatin’” ultimately fulfills its promise.
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