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Animated ‘Anomalisa’ Proves Achingly Human

Stop motion film just garnered Oscar nod for Best Animated Film

Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) thinks he has found something extraordinary...

Credit: Paramount

Above: Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) thinks he has found something extraordinary in Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the Oscar-nominated "Anomalisa."

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Anomalisa."

Transcript

Companion viewing

"Being John Malkovich" (1999)

"Legend of the Sacred Stone" (2000)

"Team America: World Police" (2004)

"Strings" (2004)

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Anomalisa” just nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Animated film.

American audiences tend to consider animation a genre rather than a stylistic choice and then limit it further by thinking it’s mostly for kids.

“Anomalisa” (opening Jan. 15 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) challenges those expectations on multiple levels. First by being an animated film for adults and more deeply by delivering a story that initially seems better suited to live action.

Writer Charlie Kaufman (who penned “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation”) explained that he had not intended the script to be for an animated film:

The reason that it happened this way was that I wrote this thing as a play and it was performed in 2005 and a friend of mine was in the audience and liked it and approached me. He had started an animation company, a place called Starburns Industries where Duke [Johnson] is a director. He approached me and asked me if they could make it into a stop motion film. So that’s what they did there, they made stop motion films and so that’s initially why it was going to be that. My reaction at the time wasn’t, ‘Well this shouldn’t be a stop motion film because it’s small and it’s naturalistic.’ My reaction was, 'OK, if you can raise the money.’

And they did. And Duke Johnson took the helm to turn Kaufman’s unconventional romance into an animated film.

“We like to think of animation as a medium and not a genre,” Duke Johnson said. “So it’s just another way to tell a story or explore these situations. You can just as easily ask why not animation?”

That’s the question the film prompts viewers to think about, and in the process that plays into the themes of what makes us human and what makes us alive and unique. Johnson points out that stop motion animation in the style of “Anomalisa” is not easy to do. He suggests it’s probably easier to create CGI fantasy creatures within a live action film than to create an entire world made from puppets and miniature sets.

To which Kaufman countered: “If they can do that with live action then why can’t we do sort of more realistic storytelling with animation?”

Although not originally intended as an animated film, Kaufman’s bittersweet tale of two people discovering their humanity in a blandly homogenous society plays much better in stop motion. The stylistic choice lends a surreal quality to the story and proves impressively affecting.

The story involves Michael (voiced by David Thewlis), who is attending a convention where he is a motivational speaker. But he happens to be suffering a crisis and is desperate to find something extraordinary to rescue him from the mundaneness of his life. When he meets Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) he thinks he’s found it.

To emphasize the mundaneness, everyone else in the film is voiced by actor Tom Noonan. That, Kaufman said, would present a problem in a live action film:

What do you do to create the world of one person? I mean does everyone have the face of one actor? We actually did that in stop motion but you almost don’t know that we did it because you have a different sort of frame of reference for stop motion puppets than you do for actors. If everybody in this world were played by Tom Noonan in live action, it would be a very different movie. And I think a very distracting movie. And as it is it creeps up on you, the reality that this is what’s happening, which I think for me is a superior way to experience the story. We think there’s a dream-like quality that we get from this type of filmmaking that suits the story that’s being told, which is by the way a fairly stylize story. I mean we have a world in which everyone has the same voice. That’s not exactly naturalistic. It’s stylized by design.

'Anomalisa' Featurette

The puppets themselves look uncannily human but with seams clearly visible where the face splits in two to allow for the animation of facial expressions. Director Duke Johnson said:

The look came about organically by first deciding that we wanted to have a puppet that felt a little bit more naturalistic and that might be able to deliver an emotional experience that felt authentic and truthful and in line with the voice performances that we recorded. We started investigating styles of animation that might be able to deliver the widest range of emotional possibilities in expressions and things. And we came across replacement animation, which is a style of animation where the face is broken in two parts: the top part and the brow region, and the bottom part for the mouth. And there are about 150 different top pieces and 150 different bottom pieces and millions of combinations that are possible to interchange them and create the performance. Those seams are there because the face is split into two parts and once we saw that we liked it and decided to keep it because typically when that style of animation is used those seams are painted out digitally after the fact. We liked specifically the unpolished quality of stop motion. We didn’t want to hide the fact that it was animated in that style. And also the seams helped accentuate a sort of fractured quality that the characters possessed. And it also showcases the handmade quality of the style of animation and the influence of the animators themselves.

At one point, Michael even notices the seams and stops to contemplate what it means in terms of how he defines his humanity. But it’s only a moment, and he gets distracted and never returns for further investigation. I wish he had, but then we would have had another type of film, perhaps something more of the science fiction bent.

But Kaufman’s films have always stretched the bounds of what we consider realism. In “Being John Malkovich,” he takes us into the head of that famous actor. In “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” he suggests one’s memories can be erased. In “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” the line between reality and fantasy is blurred.

Kaufman is a writer who likes to challenge his audience and animation freed him up even more. He said:

I don’t have any qualms about doing stylized or fantastic things in live action. Once you decide on the form, which in this case was stop motion, it’s a matter of figuring out how to use that form to tell the story that you are trying to tell. And in that sense it allowed for a new way of thinking because I’d never done this before and it opened up ways of thinking about movement and how to convey emotions through choreography, which is something that you do with live actors. But to a certain extent or a large extent they bring a lot of that themselves so you are not directing them to lift their hand or scratch their arm but you are doing this type of thing and that’s interesting and it was fun for me.

Kaufman’s link to puppetry goes back to “Being John Malkovich” where John Cusack played a puppeteer:

I like puppets and I was interested in writing about a world in which puppeteers are taken more seriously artistically than I think they are in the world in which we live. And I thought that was an interesting and funny idea. I’d been inspired by this guy named Bruce Schwartz who is a puppeteer who does these really beautiful, subtle puppetry and I’d seen his stuff and he was definitely in the back of my mind when I was writing the character for ‘Being John Malkovich.’ So I do see a through line between that and him and ‘Malkovich,’ and what Duke and I were doing in this, in that it is sort of exciting to take a form that people perceive culturally in a very specific way and to try and sort of move it somewhere else and have it be effective. I feel like that does interest me and it was what we were trying to do here.

“Anomalisa” (rated R for strong sexual content, graphic nudity and language) has no human beings on screen in the film but it tackles issues of what defines our humanity in ways that are surprisingly effective and moving. However, I did have a moment where I inappropriately giggled because the puppet sex made me think of the Trey Parker/Matt Stone comedy “Team America.” It’s similar to how "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" makes it impossible to watch any King Arthur tale and not giggle about watery tarts with swords.

But aside from that, “Anomalisa” delivers an animated film with a touching grasp of the human condition.

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Photo of Beth Accomando

Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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