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Film Review: ‘Claydream’ is an Engaging Look at the Career of Claymation Pioneer Will Vinton

Will Vinton is probably the most notable stop-motion filmmaker in the field of animation. After decades of working in the stop-motion animation medium, his work became woven into pop culture with the phenomenal success of characters like the California Raisins and the Dominos Noid, as well as his work on Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker. 

Vinton is the subject of Marq Evans’ documentary, Claydream, which chronicles the rise and fall of his storied career. The film opens by teasing the 2004 lawsuit against Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight, providing only passing details with no clear indication of who was at fault, and what exactly was the root of the lawsuit. As the film progresses, we are walked through Vinton’s life and career, as details of the lawsuit are peppered in, providing more and more context leading up to the film’s climax. 

Vinton was a pioneer in the industry, and his ingenuity and passion for the craft of stop motion animation, or “claymation” as it was known, thanks to Vinton’s medium of choice, takes center stage in Claydream. Evans has given us an engaging look at the famed animator and the artform that he helped bring to the world.

We’re walked through Vinton’s early work in 1960s Berkley, CA, with his creative partner Bob Gardiner, and their meteoric rise to fame. We also see how Vinton parlayed an Oscar win into a full-fledged career, creating a studio full of ragtag animators who were as enamored with Vinton’s visions as he was. 

The film also explores the studio’s recurrence in the 2000s with TV projects such as Eddie Murphy’s The PJs and Gary and Mike, both of which used the newly developed “foamation,” as well as CGI projects such as the M&Ms television commercials. One can easily find this time period in Will Vinton Studios to be particularly interesting, because it exemplifies the changes in the industry at the time, and what steps it took to try to keep up to avoid becoming an antiquated medium. 

Will Vinton saw himself as the next Walt Disney, and Evans does a nice job of drawing parallels between the two visionaries. The difference, however, is that, unlike Vinton, Disney didn’t live to become the victim of his own success. Will Vinton’s trajectory is both tragic and uplifting,  and Evans does an admirable job of balancing those two.

If there’s one complaint about Claydream, it’s that despite the incredible access we’re given to Vinton’s life and those closest to him, You don’t feel that we get the full picture of who he was as a person. Production on the documentary began before Vinton’s death in 2018, so it has the advantage of interviews with Vinton himself, a rarity in a picture of this kind. Even so, it’s hard not to feel that the film only skimmed the surface of Vinton. You’re also left wanting to learn more about the Claymation boom following Vinton’s initial success. The impact of his work is touched upon, specifically, how the over-saturation of stop motion animation contributed to its demise, but it could easily be the subject of a film itself. 

Once we get to the meat of the lawsuit between Vinton and Knight, we are fully invested in Vinton’s plight, though sadly, we are also aware that his journey was never meant to end favorably. While we are left with a sense of contentment from Vinton, we can’t help but empathize with the ping of regret of what could have been. 

Overall, Marq Evans has crafted an effective and engaging documentary about a visionary whose work is falling further and further into the rearview mirror. Hopefully, there will be a renewed interest in Will Vinton’s work as a result of Claydream, and perhaps in the art form of Claymation as well. 

SCORE: ★★★

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Written by Jeff Heller

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