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Immersed in Movies: Why We Need ‘Anomalisa’

Immersed in Movies: Why We Need 'Anomalisa'

Late last week I was asked if Anomalisa might not get nominated because of how divisive it ‘s become within the animation industry.  Of course, it’ll get nominated, I responded. Why shouldn’t it? Anomalisa has garnered such critical acclaim (including the LA Film Critics honor for best animated feature). Plus, it’s such a bold, progressive move for stop-motion — just the kind of adult animation we keep demanding — despite dissatisfaction from those who either don’t appreciate Charlie Kaufman’s existential story or its minimalist aesthetic.

Then I thought about some of the negative comments I’ve encountered: it’s too talky, it doesn’t fully make use of stop-motion; the story leaves too many unanswered questions; there’s an inconsistency with regard to leaving the seams on the faces; it should’ve been a short; it shouldn’t have been animated at all.

Suddenly, I realized that there was a real possibility that Anomalisa might get shut out. But to deny it a nomination would send such a chilling message to the industry at the worst possible time. It’s a Kaufman movie, after all. It’s messy and imperfect and surreal. Yet there’s so much to marvel at, from the craft of the puppetry (the seams merely add a bizarre dimension) to the.creepy familiarity of the hotel sets.

And there are so many unforgettable moments, beginning with the shaky opening plane ride and then the uncomfortable taxi ride to the hotel. And how about that continuous-take from the lobby to the elevator to the corridor to the room, brilliantly executed by cinematographer Joe Passarelli? You don’t see that very often in stop-motion. 

Or the scenes when Michael’s alone in his room or the unnerving meeting in the bar with his ex-girlfriend or the weird dream. Just the act of lighting a cigarette or holding a drink becomes a major accomplishment for stop-motion. And let’s not forget the superb trio of voice performances by David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan. The whole movie shifts dramatically when she achingly sings ”Girl’s Just Wanna Have Fun.”

Then there’s the incredible sex scene, which took six months to perfect. The tenderness, vulnerability and realism achieved is difficult enough in live-action, let alone in stop-motion, which contained an additional set of challenges.

Indeed, this required special armatures from Merrick Cheney to get believable motions from Michael and Lisa. And  the bed sheets and comforter needed special rigging to make them animatable and life-like. Then removing clothes naturally was extremely difficult. The puppetry is magnificent, thanks, in particular, to supervisor Caroline Kastelic and animator Kim Blanchette.

As far as the use of stop-motion, Kaufman explained the rationale to me: “You get a kind of surreal feeling and also it allows you to focus on the things we want you to focus on in a new way — the stuff that’s very small and mundane that happens in a person’s life when they’re in a hotel room. There’s more interest because you’re seeing a puppet do things that you’re very familiar with that you might not notice if it was a human doing it.”

What’s remarkable is that we forget we’re watching puppets. It’s the greatest accomplishment of Anomalisa and a testament to Kaulfman, co-director Duke Johnson, producer Rosa Tran, Starburst Industries and the entire crew. It truly is an anomaly worth embracing. Here’s hoping it gets nominated as an encouragement for animation to continue experimenting with new genres and expand beyond family entertainment.

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