Animation: Private Snafu And Bill Plympton

DVD and Book Review

A recently-released DVD and a beautiful new coffee-table book celebrate two high-spots in the wide world of animation. Thunderbean Animation’s DVD of the Private Snafu cartoons from World War Two puts these fascinating curios in proper historical perspective—and finally offers cartoon buffs beautiful prints from the original 35mm masters. Independently Animated: Bill Plympton (Universe) by Plympton and David L. Levy, with a foreword by Terry Gilliam, surveys the life and career of a singular talent who has maintained a career—and produced an enviable output of animation—on his own terms for several decades.

The Snafu cartoons were originally “discovered” by 16mm collectors some years ago as used prints, originally circulated to Army bases, turned up on the open market. Because they had all the earmarks of Warner Bros. cartoons (Mel Blanc’s voice, Carl Stalling’s music, etc.), and since each of the studio’s leading directors had an identifiable style, aficionados were able to peg various entries as the work of Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin, and Friz Freleng. Further research revealed that the character was devised by Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.

Now, thanks to Steve Stanchfield and a small army of animation experts, we can enjoy a complete collection of these wartime cartoons, derived from 35mm materials stored at the U. S. National Archives and Research Administration in Washington, D.C. (Goodbye to third-generation 16mm copies!) The character of Snafu—named after a familiar military acronym: Situation Normal All F***ed Up—was a—

—genial dope whose misadventures served to teach soldiers a wide range of lessons, from avoiding malaria to keeping one’s lips sealed about Army locations and maneuvers. Because they were intended strictly for military use and not for public consumption, the animators and gag-men felt free to indulge in four-letter words and bathroom humor—although even they had to change the meaning of F in Snafu to “fouled” in an introductory cartoon.

A stirring moment from Friz Freleng’s Snafuperman.

Two dozen cartoons are collected here, along with a handful of related short subjects made by the Harman-Ising studio, MGM, and the fledgling UPA group. Commentary tracks by Jerry Beck, Mark Kazaleh, John Kricfalusi, and Eric Goldberg (who also provided the artwork for the DVD package) enhance one’s appreciation of the shorts and the various directors’ approach to telling their stories. Other special features include an eye-popping array of original artwork from the Paul Manchester collection, and a variety of odds and ends, including photos of an original Snafu maquette, and Yank magazine covers with models created by none other than Ray Harryhausen.

Yes, you can find most of these films online, and many of us have earlier collections. Trust me, you’ve never seen them looking and sounding like this. Thunderbean’s meticulously produced DVD is in a class by itself, and well worth owning.

I fell in love with Bill Plympton’s work the first time I saw his outrageous 1987 short-subject Your Face, animated by the artist himself using colored pencils. (To my embarrassment, I hadn’t been aware of his equally clever newspaper and magazine cartoons.) That amazing three-minute tour-de-force not only introduced me to the artist’s signature style but his uniquely perverse sense of humor. Form and content are completely intertwined into an organic whole, as human beings and animals’ faces and features are distorted beyond all reason. Plympton gives new meaning to the word “caricature.” I became a fan on the spot, and I’ve followed his career with great interest since then, through such feature-length films as The Tune, I Married a Strange Person, Hair High, and most recently, Idiots and Angels. At first, he insisted on drawing every frame himself, so as not to surrender control—or compromise his style—but in recent years he has found a way to employ assistants and even a computer without altering the look of his work. For a vivid example, take a look at Guard Dog HERE.

Now comes a magnificent magnum opus, Independently Animated: Bill Plympton is an opulent, lavishly illustrated volume that serves as both autobiography and career survey. From it we learn Plympton’s inspirations and sources, see his earliest efforts, and witness the refinement of his outlook and process over the years through scores of sketches, storyboards, doodles, and finished pieces.

As a frustrated cartoonist, one of the things I enjoy most about Bill’s films is that they celebrate the art—and joy—of drawing. One can find beautiful artwork in big-studio cartoon features, too, but it’s hard to discern the visual signature of an individual artist. That could never be said of a film like Idiots and Angels.

I recommend this book wholeheartedly, and if you want to find all things Bill Plympton, he’s a click away at

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June 2024