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Mutant Aliens

IndieDVD // R // July 1, 2003
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jason Bovberg | posted July 3, 2003 | E-mail the Author


Bill Plympton never ceases to put a nasty smile on my face. There's something prurient and restlessly alive about his work—that shifting, herky-jerky colored-pencil animation that tends toward outrageous gore and sex played for laughs. Plympton is probably most famous for his brief interstitial work for MTV, but his best films are those that sprout from his own fertile imagination. Plympton's feature film Mutant Aliens falls squarely into the latter category.

Plympton has a unique visual style—he essentially repeats animated frames in groups of four. The result is an image that boasts a nervously alive quality that's somehow perfectly suited to his subject matter. Plympton dabbles gleefully in the grotesque, hacking his way through flesh with wild abandon, squishing faces, splaying bodies, emitting screams, and piling on other cartoon violence. The style and subject matter serve his short films extremely well. I defy you to watch his Your Face or 25 Ways to Quit Smoking without falling out of your chair, laughing at their perfect, exaggerated, tasteless humor.

Unfortunately, despite his zany gifts, Plympton hasn't achieved the wild success that he deserves. I would love to see a fairly large-budgeted feature film helmed by Plympton and an able-penned animation crew. Instead, we'll have to derive as much joy as possible from the very independent and somewhat messy Mutant Aliens. What we have here is essentially a one-man show, a film that clearly has been assembled haphazardly from old and new ideas and brain farts. Mutant Aliens is a film that you have to admire for the spirit and guts of its creator, but there's no getting around the fact that it often underachieves. But how much more can you ask from an obvious labor of love?

Astronaut Earl Jensen, father of adorable daughter Josie, embarks on a space mission subsidized by the corporate money-grubber Dr. Frubar. When the nasty Frubar, the designer of the rocketship, dooms Earl in an effort to raise cash toward space-travel safety, Josie finds herself without a dad and suddenly at blame for the loss of the ship. While her dad is lost in space, Josie grows up and becomes horny, and she gets a job at an observatory—shades of Jodie Foster in Contact. Twenty years after the fateful day she lost her dad, she's one of the first to discover that he's miraculously on his way back to Earth. Soon, we're hearing dad's story about alien contact with strange little creatures that resemble human body parts—and we find that he's brought some of them home with him.

It's an interesting concept that translates to a series of fun if meandering episodes. I enjoyed Mutant Aliens primarily for its many funny bits rather than for the film as a whole. Which makes me wonder if feature films are really the way to go for Plympton. His short work is so visceral and perfect, but stretched to long form, his imagery loses some of its impact. But let me reiterate that I'm full of admiration for Plympton, who almost single-handedly powered this movie to realization. The feat is goddamned impressive.

One of the things you'll learn from the DVD's supplements is that Plympton stores his many outrageous ideas inside a file cabinet filled with folders. It's a messy collection of scrawled ideas, from the sexually graphic to the observantly juvenile to the outright hilarious, and many of his ideas are all those things at once. In a way, Mutant Aliens is just like that file cabinet—a wild chaos of vaguely entwined images, powerful in their own way but lost in the whole.


IndieDVD presents Mutant Aliens in an adequate nonanamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.78:1 theatrical presentation. Honestly, the elements are nothing to shout about, looking very sketchy and low rent. But if you expected something different, you're in the wrong review. This is truly a low-budget, independent film, made on the equivalent of home computers and sketch pads, so don't expect anything on the level of Toy Story or even Heavy Metal.

Although it commits the sin of no enhancement for widescreen sets, the transfer does as good a job as can be expected with the original film elements. Although the look of Mutant Aliens is often grainy and poorly lit, and the colors are mostly drab, I don't think that's all the result of the transfer. I think the film just looks that way. And that's fine. This presentation is nothing better or worse than I expected. Detail is okay, and black levels are mediocre. But that's the way it goes.


The disc offers only a Dolby Digital 2.0 track (which confuses me, because I believe the Region 2 DVD contains a Dolby 5.1 surround track). The sound design of Mutant Aliens is poor. The presentation remains front and center, as well as hissy. There's the sense that the audio elements were recorded on cheap equipment, with little or no noise reduction in place. Dialog sounds both far away and muted, giving the audio a disembodied feeling. There is no low end, even when the film would benefit from one, such as during scenes of rocketships blasting off.

The DVD offers no subtitles.


First up is a lively Plympton Commentary, a scene-specific audio track from the director. Although Bill has a relatively monotone voice, he has much to share about the making of his film, his inspirations, and his style. He points to many mainstream influences, such as Robert Altman's Countdown and Jodie Foster in Contact. At the same time, he acknowledges the influence of classical surrealism in his art. I liked the way he breaks down each scene, describing origins of specific ideas and the way the scene evolved. This is an entertaining track, particularly if you're a Plympton fan.

Next is the long but quite marvelous Behind the Drawings (The Plympton Diaries), an episodic video diary about the making of the film. At 90 minutes, this feature is 5 minutes longer than the film itself! Broken down into such categories as Where Do You Get Your Ideas? (I loved one of Bill's matter-of-fact answers to this question: "Drugs"), Storyboards, Concept Sketches, Character Design, Layouts, Shooting, Music, and Premiere, this documentary is probably one of the most thorough, exhaustive making-of pieces I've seen on DVD. Filmed in a predictably informal fashion—by a dude with a camcorder—it follows Bill (slobbish in shorts and flip-flops) through the entire process of making Mutant Aliens, from origins to his own guerilla promotion of the film, giving away flyers on the street. Most of the documentary takes place in Bill's cramped New York apartment, watching him sketch and dig out ideas from his gag file. But the second part is devoted to the scoring, the animation, and the Sundance premiere. I found all of it fascinating—except perhaps for the disturbing scene of Bill in bed with a large cutout of one of his female characters. Nice job!

You also get an interactive but fairly pointless Mutations Game, in which you can create Plymptonian critters from a body-part menu. Finally, there's the option to view Other IndieDVD Films, which amounts to a single trailer for Pop.


At the very least, you should take a look at this earnest effort from an under-appreciated animator. He's not at his top form, but you've gotta admire Plympton's gargantuan balls in putting it together. He's an innovator in independent animation, and he needs your dollars. The DVD sports an adequate video/audio presentation and way-above-average supplements.

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