Arts Review, Movies
Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson, directors
Charlie Kaufman, script
Puppet animation voiced by David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan
Stop motion puppet animation is an acquired taste, like drinking single malt scotch or eating oysters. Those who love it—and I’m one—find it hard to understand why not everyone shares their passionate commitment to certain foods or drinks or art forms. To those of us who endlessly enjoy the work of the surrealist Czech Jan Svankmajer, the strange identical twin Quay Brothers and more recently the wonderfully funny Wallace and Gromit series and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, almost any addition to the genre is worthy of acclaim. So you’ll understand why the announcement that Anomalisa is nominated for an Oscar in the best animated feature category along with Shaun the Sheep Movie feels like a personal triumph for stop-motion advocates. Soon everyone will be shucking oysters with us, too.
Someone who has been eating the oysters and drinking the scotch—at least figuratively–is Charlie Kaufman, the animating spirit behind Anomalisa. The author of the wonderfully quirky Being John Malkovitch, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Adaptation knows a philosophical conundrum when he encounters one. Here, he’s created a tale—really a worldview—in which identity is threatened by the overwhelmingly conformity of modern life. It’s a story that might seem predictable if played out by actors in a conventional setting but the dramatis personae of Anomalisa are, of course, puppets, not “real people.” The magic of stop motion animation has rarely been used to explore existential despair—but, then, Kaufman is an innovator.
Anomalisa isn’t set in Oz. The film’s main character, Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) has just arrived in Cincinnati to give one of the motivational speeches that has made him a middlebrow star. He runs into Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the hotel, where he’s going to give his presentation the next morning. Michael is going through a mid-life crisis and Lisa is a young, energetic, slightly overweight fan. What happens next is inevitable—though it is unique to see a rather realistic sexual scene played out by puppets.
But Stone’s dilemma can’t be solved by an erotic encounter. He’s suffering from a big case of the blues. Nothing is exciting to him anymore—not his wife or child—and his speeches no longer motivate him. Through the magic of stop motion and canny use of voice-over conversations, Kaufman and his animation co-director Duke Johnson are able to offer up a world of oppressive sameness that reflects some genuine First World dilemmas. (In Afghanistan and Syria, the population would doubtless love to suffer from Stone’s problems.)
Anomalisa is an impressive achievement. Like all Charlie Kaufman films, it is freighted with philosophical and narrative challenges. We’re not in Disneyland with Anomalisa; it is a unique achievement, one of the most fascinating films ever created in the animation genre. Should you see it? Of course. Will it win the Oscar? Nope. Check out Shaun the Sheep Movie and Inside Out for more audience endearing fare.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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