Tune, The (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Mar 01, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Tune, The (Blu-ray Review)


Bill Plympton

Release Date(s)

1992 (February 27, 2024)


October Films (Deaf Crocodile/Vinegar Syndrome)
  • Film/Program Grade: B-
  • Video Grade: A-
  • Audio Grade: A-
  • Extras Grade: B+

The Tune (Blu-ray)

Buy it Here!


Over the span of more than 130 years since Charles-Émile Reynaud first offered his Praxinoscope animated shorts like Pauvre Pierrot (1892), the world of animation has produced a variety of visionaries who put their own unique stamp on the art form. Disparate artists like Tex Avery, Terry Gilliam, Ralph Bakshi, John Kricfalusi, and Hayao Miyazaki have all created works that are immediately recognizable as being their own (and that’s not even counting stop-motion artists like Jan Švankmajer, Jiří Trnka, and the Brothers Quay). Yet one of the most distinctive of all of them is arguably Bill Plympton—he’s unique even by the standards of all the rest. Largely eschewing traditional cel animation, Plympton hand-draws his individual frames on paper, usually (though not always) with colored pencils. For anything that requires detailed backgrounds, the foreground elements are then cut out and pasted to acetate in order to avoid having to redraw the backgrounds for every frame. That means it’s still cel animation in the broadest sense of the term, but it’s in a form that retains the textures of the pencil and paper. His art style is instantly recognizable even in stills, but once animated, it takes on a shimmering life all its own.

Plympton spent years making shorts that became staples on shows like MTV’s Liquid Television, but in 1992, he made the leap into feature filmmaking with The Tune. Befitting an animator who got his start making shorts, The Tune is an intentionally meandering collection of set pieces held together (barely) by a framing story. Del (Daniel Neiden) is a struggling songwriter who is trying to come up with the perfect tune to sell to his boss Mr. Mega (Marty Nelson) in order to save both his job and his relationship with Mr. Mega’s secretary Didi (Maureen McElheron). Mr. Mega has had enough of waiting, so he gives Del just 47 minutes to reach the office with a finished song. Del’s trip ends up with some unexpected detours along the way, but those side trips give him the inspiration that he needs—or so he thinks, anyway. In the end, he discovers that true inspiration must come from within.

That’s the story, such as it is. This basic narrative is little more than an excuse to hold together a series of disconnected set pieces, some of which came from elsewhere. Plympton incorporated a few of his existing shorts like Dig My Do (1990), Tango Schmango (1990), The Wiseman (1991), and Push Comes to Shove (1991). He also added new material for Del’s encounters, some of it straying from his well-known style by drawing directly on the acetates with Rapidograph pens and having them filled in with paint on the reverse side (a rare case of someone else contributing to Plympton’s self-drawn artwork). Considering that the existing shorts are completely unrelated to each other or to the story of The Tune, they might seem like padding at first, but they actually integrate surprisingly well—or at least they will for those who are familiar with Plympton’s work, anyway.

That’s because Plympton’s style (and his sense of humor) tends to be built around two main concepts: non sequiturs and reductio ad absurdum. In The Wiseman, the sage’s words of wisdom are punctuated by a seemingly endless series of completely unrelated (and completely baffling) transformations. You never know in advance what might happen in a Plympton short, and that uncertainty just keeps coming over and over again until he’s beaten the joke to death. So, it’s perfectly appropriate that The Tune does the same thing at feature length. It’s the exact same style as his shorts, only writ large this time. After one of the shorts has unfolded, Del asks the audience, “Why am I watching this?”, and the answer is that he can’t stop, any more than the rest of us can.

That’s all true, and yet it’s not quite being fair to the framing device of The Tune. At its heart, this is really a love story, just not the superficial one between Del and Didi. As much as Plympton may love animation as an art form, he has an equal great love for music. He wrote the story for The Tune along with P.C. Vey and Maureen McElheron, and McElheron contributed the catchy songs for the film. She’s a longtime friend of Plympton who has worked with him repeatedly throughout his career, going all the way back to Your Face in 1987. (They’ve even performed on stage together.) Plympton and McElheron share a love for American roots music and musical theatre, and her earnest but witty songs provide the perfect accompaniment for The Tune. In some respects, The Tune is more of a love story between Plympton and McElheron than it is with Del and Didi. Not necessarily in the romantic sense (Plympton has been married to artist Sandrine Flament since 2011), but rather in terms of the deep bond that can exist between people who share love for the same things. It’s really that kind of affection that holds the film together regardless of the varied nature of its source material. In other words, The Tune is carried by its love of tunes.

The Tune was hand-animated by Bill Plympton and photographed on 35 mm film by John Donnelly using a Mitchell camera, framed open-matte at 1.33:1. According to a note from Plympton that precedes the feature, the 35 mm negative was in poor condition, but the Academy Film Archive undertook the restoration effort, scanning it at 2K resolution and digitally cleaning up any damage. The color correction process was supervised by Plympton. Fortunately, the team at the MPAA was careful not to be overzealous in their digital restoration work, because the original grain and any artifacts from the animation itself have been left intact. The textures of the artwork (and the paper) retain their tactile quality, and the natural shimmering that resulted from the variations in the pencil work has also been left alone. Plympton’s pastel color scheme has been accurately reproduced. The encoding was by David Mackenzie at Fidelity in Motion, so there are no compression artifacts of any kind to mar the imagery. This is simply gorgeous work from everyone involved, and it breathes new life into The Tune.

Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono LPCM, with optional English SDH subtitles. (Note that the packaging incorrectly claims that it’s DTS-HD Master Audio, but it’s definitely LPCM.) Mono or not, the music was all well-recorded, and it sounds quite solid in this presentation. The dialogue and effects are both equally clear, but The Tune is definitely driven by its... tunes, so it’s nice to have them sound as good as they do here.

The Deaf Crocodile Films Blu-ray release of The Tune is packaged in a clear amaray case that displays some black-and-white artwork from the film on the reverse side of the insert, which is visible when the case is opened. It also includes a 16-page booklet with an essay by Walter Chaw. There’s a spot gloss slipcover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 2,000 units, that was designed by Alessa Kreger. The following extras are included:

  • Audio Commentary by Adam Rackoff and James Hancock
  • Audio Commentary by Bill Plympton and Maureen McElheron
  • Your Face (HD – 3:21)
  • How to Kiss (Upscaled SD – 6:41)
  • Guard Dog (HD – 4:49)
  • The Flying House – Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (HD – 8:31)
  • Interview with Bill Plympton, Maureen McElheron, and Daniel Neiden (HD – 56:02)
  • The Tune Trailer (HD – 1:29)
  • Slide Trailer (HD – 4:31)

The new commentary features James Hancock of the Wrong Reel podcast with producer Adam Rackoff, both of whom have worked with Plympton on various short films. Since they started working with him after he was established and they were already big fans, they admit that it’s tough not to fall into hero worship. It’s a freewheeling conversation between the two where they reminisce about how they became aware of Plympton’s work and ended up collaborating with him. They don’t shortchange Maureen McElheron and other collaborators, but there’s no question that this is an open lover letter to Bill Plympton, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you’re looking for more practical information about the inspirations behind The Tune and how the film was made, the archival 2004 DVD commentary with Plympton and McElheron is also included. They talk about how they came up with the story idea and developed the songs. After assembling many of his existing shorts for the Plymptoons video, Plympton realized that he had already essentially made a feature film. The actual story was a personal one for him, because Del’s biggest fear is of rejections, and that’s a fear that all artists face. At one point, Plympton does discuss his use of reductio ad absurdum, and he admits that he had to learn to let go sometimes once he’d already beaten a joke to death. This commentary is just as relaxed and freewheeling as the one with Hancock and Rackoff, but it does give different insights into The Tune.

Deaf Crocodile has included three different classic Bill Plympton shorts, as well as a fourth vintage Windsor McCay short that Plympton complete decades later. The Academy Award nominated Your Face (1987) is a single shot of man’s face undergoing an increasingly violent series of transformations, all while he sings an incongruously sweet song by McElheron. The genuinely disturbing How to Kiss (1988) is a mock PSA demonstrating different types of kisses, with Plympton’s visuals taking everything to imaginative extremes (and well beyond). Guard Dog (2004) was also nominated for an Academy Award, and it’s something that all dog lovers will appreciate. A man takes his dog for a walk, with the dog barking at everything that he sees, no matter how seemingly innocent—only we’re also shown the dog’s point of view of the threats that they pose to his owner. The Flying House – Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (2011) started out as a 1921 short by the great Windsor McCay called The Flying House, which Plympton’s crew first restored and then added colors, sound, and voices to it. While the results are an interesting hybrid, it’s a shame that the original unretouched McCay version hasn’t been included.

Note that Your Face and Guard Dog were both restored by the Academy Film Archive, so they share similar video quality to The Tune. On the other hand, How to Kiss had to be upscaled from the best available SD video master, so it’s a step down in that regard. (The Flying House – Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend was obviously in no need of restoration, since it’s a restoration of its own.)

The Interview with Bill Plympton, Maureen McElheron, and Daniel Neiden an online conversation hosted by Deaf Crocodile’s Dennis Bartok. (While some of us may have grown tired of endless Zoom meetings during the pandemic, there’s no getting around the fact that online platforms have allowed small companies like Deaf Crocodile to bring people together regardless of budgetary limitations.) They discuss their backgrounds and their influences before moving on to Plympton’s early shorts and The Tune, including its unsuccessful theatrical release and its eventual restoration. They also offer a plug for Plympton’s upcoming film Slide, and it’s worth checking out the trailer for that since it’s hosted by Plympton.

There are a few missing extras from the 2005 DVD, the most significant of which is the hour-long documentary Twisted Toons: The Warped Animation of Bill Plympton. While that did focus on The Tune, it also covered some of his other shorts, so it’s possible that the rights to some of the footage couldn’t be cleared for this release. Regardless of the reason, it’s unfortunate that it couldn’t be included here, but the new commentary track and the extended interview offer plenty of added value of their own—and the Plympton shorts are nothing to sneeze at. Most importantly, The Tune has never looked or sounded this good. This is another winner in a long line of winners from Deaf Crocodile, and a must-own for Bill Plympton fans.

- Stephen Bjork

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