Drawing a cartoon feature by hand, frame by frame, used to be the only way to make one. But with the rise of computer imagery, it didn’t take long for hand-drawn animation to become a highly specialized pursuit. (“The Iron Giant” came out just four years after “Toy Story,” but in its oddly tranquil mood of Atomic Age nostalgia it already felt like a reverie from another planet.) At the megaplex, hand-drawn animation has officially gone the way of the dodo bird, but it still pops up in the indie world, where hand-drawn features are now artisanal curiosities. That’s part of the fun of going to them.
The veteran animator Bill Plympton, born in 1946, is a religious believer in the form. He has never stopped animating by hand — and more than that, in the six features he has made (along with dozens of shorts, music videos, and TV episodes), he insists on drawing each and every frame himself. Now that’s devotion, if not obsession.
“Revengeance” marks the first time that Plympton has shared the director credit on a feature (in this case, with the underground animator Jim Lujan), and the film doesn’t have Plympton’s trademark stretchy surrealism — his Tex Avery meets Francis Bacon body-and-facial-morphing madness. Yet it has his quivery rhythm and flaked-out spirit. Plympton animated the film working from Lujan’s character designs, and the images vibrate with a consciously antiquated herky-jerky flow. There’s also a motif that’s very Plymptonian, even if it was inspired by Lujan: Almost every surface in the movie, from a biker bar to a bacon-and-fried-egg breakfast, is marked with brush strokes that resemble stray hairs. The effect is engagingly scuzzy — it’s as if the whole world needed a shave.
“Revengeance” has a winkingly old-fashioned texture, yet I wish that its sense of comedy didn’t seem a little out of date too. The movie, set around the Inland Empire region of L.A., is a sawed-off satire that unfolds in the present day, but too often it feels like you’re watching an animated “Idiocracy” made in 1982. Like its 16-year-old bow-and-arrow-wielding heroine, Lana Marie Oswald, the film hits its targets with fluky glee, but it’s the targets themselves that come off as a little saggy.
Plympton and Lujan have made what could be the mildly updated version of a Ralph Bakshi cartoon. Its characters include toothless hippie bikers, a desert cult of sari-clad extraterrestrial worshippers, and several cool-cat hustlers out of a blaxploitation movie. The hero, Ron Rosse (“The one-man posse”), is a bounty hunter who looks like a nebbish tax attorney. (His girl Friday is his ancient ma, who won’t even let him have the credit card.) He is summoned, along with a handful of other bounty hunters, by Senator Deathface, a hulking, long-haired pro wrestler turned U.S. senator who’s got a skull-and-crossbones tattooed over one eye and a deep-voiced ‘tude of Middle American hucksterism. Any similarity to Jesse Ventura is far from coincidental, if not exactly au courant.
There are droll bits and riffs in “Revengeance,” from a carton of Black Lung cigarettes to the movie’s super-grungy portrait of biker culture to a man who gets shot by his furious lover, which rips a bullet hole in his chest the shape of a heart. Yet the movie’s “funny” voices (a number of them done by Lujan), its never-ending onslaught of snarling campy threats, often leave it sounding like it was made up on the spot by kids. I think it’s a good thing that Bill Plympton decided to get out of his solo-animator comfort zone. But he would now do well to look for a more cutting-edge collaborator so that he could once again elevate his hand-drawn artistry to something indelibly insane.