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‘Claydream’ Film Review: Tribute to Animator Will Vinton Considers the Costs of Commerce

The innovative artist behind the California Raisins gets his due celebration – while also examining the corporate skullduggery that was his undoing

You’ve almost certainly seen work that wouldn’t exist without the efforts of animation pioneer Will Vinton. But it’s just as likely that this is the first time you’ve ever heard his name. Thankfully, director Marq Evans (“The Glamour and the Squalor”) is determined to ensure that it won’t be the last.

In “Claydream,” Evans has made the tribute Vinton deserves – and the introduction most of us need.

As a student at Berkeley in the late 1960s, Vinton planned to go into architecture. But he found himself drawn to the sculptural works of Catalan visionary Antoni Gaudí, which in turn led to his own experiments with modelling clay. Once he combined this new interest with his love of film, he began innovating the seemingly limitless, if eternally painstaking, genre of stop-motion animation.

He and his artistic partner, Bob Gardiner, won an Oscar for their Claymation short “Closed Mondays” in 1975. Despite their messy split, the ensuing decades brought Vinton many more successes. On the film front, he made more Oscar-nominated shorts, early music videos, and interstitial sequences for film and television.

Most prominent, perhaps, were the California Raisins and Domino’s Noid ads, visions of which will spark instantaneous nostalgia in some (and bafflement at their erstwhile popularity in others). The M&Ms characters we still know today were born in Vinton’s Oregon studio, as was much of Eddie Murphy’s animated series “The PJs.”

Most important, to nearly every one of this film’s participants, was the studio itself. For many years, it was an almost utopian community, an only-in-Portland collective that “felt like art school, plus vacation.”

But eventually, capitalism took over like untrimmed ivy. Within the studio, colleagues began to notice Vinton’s limits: his lack of business agility and his reluctance to share enough – credit, emotions, explanations – with the people around him.

A new, more corporate-oriented CEO was hired to oversee the growing workload, and fellow Portlander Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike, was tapped as an investor. Then came the conditions.

First, we learn, Knight insisted that his son Travis (a rapper who went by the name “Chilly Tee”) be offered a job. The pair proceeded to lay claim to more and more of the studio. Once Phil had a controlling share, Travis was put on the board of directors, and Vinton was pushed out of the company he had created.

This is, in other words, an allegory of good and evil – or art and commerce, if you’d rather – much like the ones Vinton himself liked to make. The Knights eventually turned Vinton Studios into Laika, which went on to make acclaimed animated features like “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” and ” Missing Link” – all of which are, regardless of one’s sympathies, a long way from singing raisins.

Through copious clips of studio work and bittersweet interviews with Vinton, his former colleagues and his family members, we get a sense of both the artist’s strengths and weaknesses. Evans also gives us a clear view of the ways in which personal ambition can simultaneously inspire and obstruct. Ultimately, though, he builds the case that Vinton Studios was a jewel box fantasy, proof of Vinton’s own belief in animation as “magic.”

“Claydream” opens Friday in Los Angeles after debuting last week in New York City.

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