Animator and filmmaker Bill Plympton doesn’t require a vast team of celebrity voices to size his cartoons for the big screen. Jake and Ella, the hand-drawn romantic heroes of his newest feature, have enormous, spindly bodies that tower across the frame. Jake, a gas-station attendant, boasts huge muscles that nonetheless shrink down to a tiny waist, while Ella, the woman he meets during an improbable bumper-car rescue at a local carnival, looks a bit like the gigantic ghost of Madeline Kahn. Plympton’s goony, elongated characters aren’t alone in their outsize scale. Their surroundings, too, distend, using perspective shifts to stretch out infinitely, making a bumper-car floor look briefly stadium-size and a seedy motel room look like a vast canvas for the animator’s fluid, playful drawing style.
That distinctive style can also make Plympton’s one-of-a-kind features feel a little remote. Here it renders Jake and Ella’s relationship an abstraction in quotation marks. Their eyes, for example, are only really visible when they’re popping out in cartoonish exaggeration or shown in grotesque close-ups that exhibit little regard for actual human expression. It’s hard to get invested in the story of a femme fatale contriving to convince Jake that Ella has cheated on him, spurring his own cheating jag, when everyone in the movie looks—and, more importantly, acts—like a caricature.
Despite the adult content (including plenty of sex and nudity), Cheatin’ owes as much to coincidence, misunderstanding, and ill-defined magic as any kids’ movie, with the characters shuffled around like game pieces. The last 15 minutes or so in particular hinge on a magical plot element that promises head-spinning Charlie Kaufman-ish twists, but doesn’t do much beyond spin the story’s complications out to feature length. Digressions abound in service of that same goal, though some of them are worth the detour. Plympton animates a lovely sequence imagining sex as an elaborate heart-repair system, and his sight gags and flights of fancy (including the occasional re-appearance of his signature guard-dog character) remain delightful.
In fact, so much of what Plympton accomplishes here—writing, directing, and animating a feature without relying on a single line of real dialogue—is so impressive that it feels churlish to complain about, say, hiring Sophia Takal, the charming star of Wild Canaries, to perform Ella’s vocals only to have her material consist almost exclusively of gasps, sighs, and giggles. But while the movie may not need dialogue, it does need something to distinguish itself beyond its best sequences. As is, Cheatin’ offers little narrative or emotional advantage over watching a series of the director’s more concise works. At 76 minutes, it should play like a short feature. Instead, it’s more like an extra-long short.