Cartoonist Bill Plympton's latest is an amusing send-up of late '50s/early '60s high-school melodramas and teen-tragedy pop hits. Plympton's usual limited animation and surreal gags will appeal primarily to his small-but-loyal fan base. However, improved storytelling and "name" voice cast could help win specialized arthouse distrib before home-format release.

Cartoonist Bill Plympton’s latest is an amusing send-up of late ’50s/early ’60s high-school melodramas and teen-tragedy pop hits. It’s certainly more palatable (if not a lot more sophisticated) than Ralph Bakshi’s similar doo-wop toon “Hey, Good Lookin’.” Plympton’s usual cost-effective limited animation and surreal gross-out gags will appeal primarily to his small-but-loyal fan base. However, “Hair High’s” slightly improved storytelling (never a Plympton strong point) and presence of the helmer’s first-ever “name” voice cast could help win specialized arthouse distrib before home-format release.

Framed as a cautionary tale told by soda jerk Jo Jo (Keith Carradine) to an argumentative teen couple, pic chronicles the hate-at-first-sight saga of Spud (Eric Gilliland) and Cherri (Sarah Silverman). She’s the princessy head cheerleader at Echo Lake High, girlfriend to hulking star quarterback Rod (Dermot Mulroney); Spud is the unlucky new kid who unwittingly makes the mistake of offending them both on his first day at school. As punishment, he’s forced to be Cherri’s book-carrying, shoe-shining, humble-pie-eating “slave,” a humiliation that only exacerbates the bad vibes between them … for a while.

Of course, loathing eventually turns to really, really liking, with the mismatched duo’s unplanned first kiss providing a standout opportunity for Plympton’s signature grotesque physical comedy. When they decide to attend the prom together, Rod retaliates, leading to a somewhat protracted epilogue in which car-crashed corpses emerge from Echo Lake — still driving their convertible, natch — to lay bare the crime.

Plympton has fun exaggerating the period’s social and stylistic norms to an atomic degree (those bouffants and pompadours look very Space Age indeed). It’s a good setting for his swacked sexual/physical humor to run rampant, though as usual, narrative, character and dialogue feel thrown away alongside the elaborately imagined sight gags. Nonetheless, basic story arc holds pic together better than was the case in Plympton’s prior animated features.

While his static backgrounds and stuttering character movement aren’t likely to win overtraditional animation fans, “Hair High” reps the high end of this “Sick ‘n’ Twisted”-type toonery. Some amusing approximations of period Top 40 discs add wit to the modest but efficient package.

Pic was screened on projected vid at the S.F. Indie Fest, as a 35mm print hadn’t been finalized.

Hair High

Production

A Plymptoons production. Produced by Bill Plympton. Co-producer, Martha Plimpton. Directed, written, animated by Bill Plympton.

Crew

Camera (color), John Donnelly; editor, Rob Hall; music, Maureen McElheron, Hank Bones; art supervisors, Celia Bullwinkel, Andrea Dias Breitman, Biljana Lavbovic, Signe Baumane; sound, Bill Seery. Reviewed at San Francisco Indie Festival, Feb. 14, 2004. Running time: 75 MIN.

With

Voices: Sarah Silverman, Eric Gilliland, Beverly D'Angelo, Dermot Mulroney, Zack Orth, Keith Carradine, David Carradine, Martha Plimpton, Tom Noonan, Craig Bierko, Hayley Dumond, Ed Begley Jr., Peter Jason, Matt Groening.
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