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‘The Tune’ (NR)

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 12, 1992

A little Bill Plympton goes a long way, but even a lot of Bill Plympton can't carry "The Tune" out of its doldrums. Like those Broadway musicals in which a fragile plot provides an excuse to belt memorable melodies, "The Tune" builds on Plympton's familiar style, which made him a favorite on the animation festival circuit long before MTV gave him a wider audience.

But the short form seems this animator's forte: Broken down, "The Tune" is merely a collection of cartoon videos sustaining a weak plot premise in which songwriter Del (the voice of Daniel Neiden) must come up with a hit in 47 minutes to satisfy music mogul Mr. Mega (Marty Nelson) and save his romance with Didi (Maureen McElheron).

Mr. Mega probably has the right idea when he says Del's only contribution to the music industry will be "dying young," but, in the manner of Harry Nilsson's "The Point!" Del nonetheless embarks on a fantastic journey through various American musical styles looking to complete his immortal couplet: "My love for U/ Is equal 2" (at least that's how Prince would write it).

This is mostly an excuse for composer McElheron (who wrote the script with Plympton and P.C. Vey) to parody those styles, which she does well on several occasions, badly on others. "Good Again" plays ironically with country conventions; "Dig My Do" makes Elvis's hound dog literal; the Tom Waits-ish "No Nose Blues" flirts with racial stereotype; "Dance All Day" casts the Beach Boys adrift on Silly Billy Island. Best is "Lovesick Hotel," a hilarious catalogue of suicide options available to heartbroken guests.

There are also several segments that have already circulated through various animation festivals, notably "Push Comes to Shove," in which two middle-aged men do remarkably destructive but inventive things to each other's heads, which snap back to normal after every affront. If only the upcoming presidential debates could be as entertaining.

The majority of the film features Plympton's familiarly spare, fluid color-pencil and charcoal caricatures, though a few of the segments find him stretching in new directions. What's also familiar is what Plympton does within the segments: Too often they're reduced to rapid-fire variations on transformation themes, or one-punch-line blackouts. Sometimes these work in wonderful and mysterious ways, but the process wears out its welcome long before the 70-minute movie is over. Praiseworthy for its craftsmanship -- Plympton and two assistants inked and painted more than 30,000 drawings -- "The Tune" suffers only from the distance between its ambition and its execution.

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