Having mapped the human mind with Being John Malkovich and Adaptation., the human heart with Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and the whole of reality itself with Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman wept, for there were no more metaphysical worlds to conquer. There was nowhere left for him to go but beyond the realm of the corporeal, into an artificial new plane of his own devising. So he turned to the medium of stop motion puppetry for Anomalisa, his second feature-length go as a director, in order to posit ideas that the cumbersome burdens of flesh-bound actors had previously made impossible. The fundamental non-reality of the animated marionette dimension figures centrally into Anomalisa‘s ontologically knotty theses, the film’s piercingly tender displays of vulnerability and frailty locating a powerful irony: Kaufman had to play with toys to illustrate his most challenging assertions about human nature.
It’s pretty weighty stuff for the medium most of us commonly associate with the Misers Heat and Snow, but stop motion has long been a refuge for animators setting out away from the beaten path. The simulated movement in the frame can be as herky-jerky or, as Kaufman demonstrates, beautifully fluid as the creator likes, and the textures of non-2D animation open up planets full of possibility. Below, you’ll find five suggestions for a next step that may be worth taking if you find yourself entranced by Kaufman’s combination of stop-motion wizardry and kid-unfriendly storytelling. Who says lumps of clay can’t emote with as much fine detail as a human face?
Throughout his career, Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer has stretched the medium of stop-motion to the very limits of his imagination, piecing together characters from whatever he could get his hands on, which was mostly a careful mixture of garbage, junk, crap, and rubble. Curious parties could easily spend an entire day lost in the master animator’s filmography. His shorts, which he began making in the 1960s, nest political subtext in three-minute flourishes of surrealism, and his 1996 feature Conspirators of Pleasure intersperses live-action with animated sequences that split the difference between nightmares and sex dreams. But it was his unsettling revisionist take on Lewis Carroll’s classic dive down the rabbit hole, simply titled Alice, that cemented his legacy. (And that remolded that cement into the shape of a rat, then into a brick with teeth, then into a humanoid figure crying, and so on and so forth.) Svankmajer approaches Alice’s adventures in Wonderland not as a fantastical fable, but as a slightly-off dream sequence that would rather reshape reality in disturbing new ways than dispose of it entirely. The Disney-fied Alice that children know and love is deposited safely back into her life at the end of the movie, imbued with a new appreciation for her everyday humdrum. Alice‘s Alice receives no such comfort; by the time Svankmajer is done with her, she’s left with nagging doubts over herself, her life, and her perception of everything around her.
Mary & Max (2009)
This Australian claymation curio was already a work of emotionality almost frightening in its potency, poking at some painfully sensitive truths about loneliness, depression, anxiety, and the fragility of connection between wayward souls even before the year 2014, when lead actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman was found dead on the floor of his Manhattan apartment. So far, I have not had what it takes — the courage, or perhaps the masochistic tendencies — to revisit this singularly sad film in the light of Hoffman’s heartbreaking death, but even divorced from its tragic context, it stands on its own merit. Hoffman shares billing with native Australian Toni Collette, the pair of them voicing unlikely trans-Pacific pen pals. He’s a morbidly obese, profoundly autistic 44-year-old New York shut-in, she’s a grade-school kid struggling to survive under a hard-drinking mother and absentee father. The solace they’re able to find in one another warms the audiences’ hearts, then breaks them, then puts them back together with masking tape, then smashes them into tiny little pieces, and repeats this cycle a few more times before releasing viewers from its devastating grip. The film would be unbearably miserable if it weren’t for director Adam Elliot’s sprightly animation and cheeky sense of black humor. The most comforting chuckles are the ones that lumber out from under tears. You know the sound — less “hahaha,” more “huhuhuh.”
Mad Monster Party? (1967)
Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. pretty much handcrafted what we understand today as Christmas sentimentality with little more than painted wood and stick-on eyeballs. The Rankin/Bass production house was responsible for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Christmas Crises For Rudolph and Pals, First Christmas: The Story Of The First Christmas Snow, Santa Claus Abdicates Christmas, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year, Nestor The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus, and Rudolph’s All-Out Cool Yule Bonanza, only three of which I just made up. But the creators also had a kookier side that has largely gone ignored by posterity, a playfully weird streak that this monster mashup gleefully indulged. Featuring vocal work from the great Boris Karloff as mad doctor Frankenstein and Phyllis Diller as pretty much Phyllis Diller, the film unites Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and a host of other familiar faces for a spooky-scary go-go party. Set aside the delightfully groanworthy one-liners that Diller rapid-fires in every spare moment, viewers can still luxuriate in the ’60s kitsch that scurries around the fringes of this relic like cockroaches under a lightbulb. Rankin and Bass pervert their own instantly recognizable animation style and the youthful connotations we’ve attached to it with this harmless festival of frights.
Fantastic Planet (1973)
This one’s fudging it a little bit, but not really. This French-Czechoslovakian coproduction may only work within two dimensions, but it’s stop motion all the same; director René Laloux and production designer/cowriter/creative partner Roland Torpor cut out pen-and-ink drawings from thick paper and animated those cutouts, like South Park for the kids who hid in art class while everyone else was talking about South Park at lunch. The film’s original French title, which translates back as The Savage Planet, gives a hint as to the film’s strange pleasures. Though working within the familiar milieu of starry-eyed sci-fi, the wonders on display in this film are darker and more malevolent than might be expected. The stories-tall blue-skinned extraterrestrials that populate the title location keep human beings as pets, treating them warmly as long as they’re obedient and culling their numbers when necessary. The allegory doesn’t lose any of its power due to its straightforward nature — it’s still jarring to see how quickly the aliens turn from affection to anger to the prisoners they treat with love. But the greatest treat is still Torpor’s psychedelic animation, intergalactic daydreams that make the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine look sober in comparison.
A Town Called Panic (2009)
Plenty of stop motion pictures envision foreign worlds or paint over our own to suit their aesthetic purposes, but this haywire theatrical extension of the identically-titled French TV show finds the fun in our everyday clutter. Like a highly caffeinated Toy Story sequel, the film chronicles the loopy misadventures of a plastic horse figurine named Horse, a Native American figurine named Indian, and a cowboy named Cowboy, all of whom live together as roomies/besties. A simple misunderstanding (who among us can honestly say we haven’t accidentally ordered 50 million bricks instead of fifty when planning to build a DIY BBQ for a friend’s birthday?) sends them on a wild goose chase across frozen Arctic wasteland, the watery depths of the seven seas, and finally to the very center of the Earth. Jittery as it may be with the unadulterated excitement of youth, the bone-dry sense of humor may turn kids away from this crazytown joyride. But for adults in touch with their inner child, it’s a guilt-free sugar rush.