For a pretty long stretch from the mid-80s into the very early 2000s, animator Will Vinton‘s work was everywhere. The clay-animated California Raisins TV commercials made him a household name. Domino’s Pizzas were menaced by his character, The Noid. He invented the term “Claymation,” and copyrighted it, even though it became short-hand for stop-motion Plasticine-animation. At his peak, his animation house had two series on the air in 2000.
Remember Eddie Murphy’s “The PJs?”
As the new documentary “Claydreams” reminds us, Vinton had that “Be the new Walt Disney” dream, and he never let go of it. He’d won an Oscar for a short film — “Closed Mondays” — he co-directed in 1974. He wanted to make feature films. He wanted to create a character that he would own, “that would make an amusement park.” It never happened, and the studio he founded didn’t reach its artistic peak until it was taken from him.
Writer-director Marq Evans’ “Claydream” treats this piece of Portlandia lore — Vinton was a native Oregonian who kept his business there and wanted his planned theme park built there — as a tragedy, a Preston Tucker style visionary stymied and stopped just short of glory.
But it’s apparent that even Evans had to see this “character,” as one former colleague says, had more than one “character flaw” that just wouldn’t let it happen.
Vinton started plans for a “Frog Prince” movie, but Disney got there first. Vinton popularized “Claymation,” but Aardman (“Wallace & Gromit,” “Chicken Run”) did it better, even if he wouldn’t let them use that term to describe the work. He won an a Emmy for a “California Raisins” holiday special, which says more about the Emmys following fads than it does about the work.
The director who mostly had to content himself with shorts and filming other people’s commercials and TV ideas got to make one feature film. And the ungainly, atonal “Adventures of Mark Twain” (1985) showed “story,” “script” and characters to not be his strong suits.
As someone who cultivated a Disney-esque sense of “credit,” he never recruited talented writers to collaborate and share the glory with. Even after he took his studio into CGI — pioneering the talking M&Ms commercials — he lacked the vision, team-building skills and storyeller’s eye that allowed Pixar to revolutionize the medium with “Toy Story.”
“Claydream” has interviews with collaborators, Vinton Studios alumni, fellow animators like Bill Plympton and animation historian Jerry Beck. It features clips of decades of behind-the-scenes home movies and TV feature stories — some national, but the vast majority from local media right there in Portland, which emphasize both his hometown loyalty and the pejorative label “small time.”
Sure, Vinton did a Raisins spot with Michael Jackson, a big fan (and a guy who knew a good fad to latch onto when he saw it). But his films never had the wit and warmth of Aardman scripts, and never had the sophisticated cachet that got the attention of big name actors or the most colorful voice actors.
That suits the documentary’s framing device, a court deposition for an early 2000s lawsuit between Vinton and Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight. That suit, played out in clips throughout “Claydream,” was between a silent but big name investor who moved to take the company over when Vinton’s missteps put it in the red.
Vinton had already blown the chance to team up with Apple and Pixar CEO Steve Jobs, didn’t own the rights to those damned raisins and never developed anything that became a great commercial success on his own. Not going along with Knight turned out to be his biggest blunder of all.
Knight and his son turned Vinton’s once-successful clay animation house into stop-motion trend setters Laika (“Coraline,” “ParaNorman,” “Missing Link”), which has proven to be a worthy competitor to both Aardman and even Pixar, at least in an artistic sense.
“Claydream” ensures that we at least remember the guy who popularized an art form that predated him — “Gumby,” “Davey & Goliath” were TV mainstays in the ’50s and ’60s — and that peaked after he was shoved aside by the better storytellers who came along to take it over.
Cast: Will Vinton, Susan Shadburne, Bill Plympton, Jerry Beck, William Fiesterman and Phil Knight
Credits: Scripted and directed by Marq Evans. An Oscilloscope Labs release.
Running time: 1:36