Anomalisa

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movie poster
Directed by
Duke Johnson, Charlie Kaufman
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rating
4.0* /5.0*

I finally caught up with Anomalisa. I'm a pretty big fan of stop-motion animation and I tend to keep an eye out for Charlie Kaufman's projects. It wasn't that I was unaware of Anomalisa's existence, but for some inexplicable reason our paths never crossed. Until Netflix decided to pick it up that is, once they added it to their library there were no more excuses to ignore the film. I'm not really bummed that I skipped this one in theaters though, even though it's an amazing film, it's the kind that works best when enjoyed in the warm comfort and precious tranquility on one's own home.

screen capture of Anomalisa

Most films marked as "adult animation" are little more than adolescent indulgences soothing our inner child. Hardcore scifi like Ghost in the Shell or action-crazed films like Dead Leaves are clearly not aimed at kids, but they aren't really all that mature either. That's not a judgement mind, just an observation. There's certainly no lack of adult animation for those willing to do a little digging, but finding truly mature animation films is a lot trickier. Hence the value and importance of a film like Anomalisa.

Anomalisa isn't completely void of genre influences, but for the most part it's a pretty down to earth, dialogue-driven drama. Thematically it feels like one of the best representations of the (male) mid-life crisis I've ever seen, though I'm at least 10 years too young to be able to confirm that first-hand. While checking some other reviews though, it seems I'm not the only one who picked up on that vibe. As a result, Anomalisa isn't the world's pleasant and most upbeat film, but it sure is one heck of a well-mannered sucker punch.

The central character of the film is Michael Stone, a successful author and public speaker who promotes his book by giving talks to people about the exciting world of customer service. We follow him on a trip to Cincinnati, where he is supposed to attend a congress and give a presentation. While Stone goes through the motions, it's clear that he has gone through this entire charade at least one time too often. In a world where everyone looks and sound the same, he stumbles upon Lisa, a young woman who lights up his world.

screen capture of Anomalisa

If you're wondering how Kaufman came to direct a stop-motion animation film, it's in fact Duke Johnson who approached Kaufman to adapt his play into a feature film. Johnson has a background in stop-motion and was looking at scripts that would highlight the potential for human emotion and drama done as animation. Kaufman was charmed by the idea and one Kickstarter later they were both on board to direct the film.

I've seen my share of stop-motion films and have in fact a soft spot for the technique, but I've never seen one executed quite like this. There is just so much attention to detail that went into the animation that it's baffling. All these tiny little gestures and behaviors make it so that the puppets are actually believable as human beings. The animation isn't necessarily superfluid, but Johnson doesn't need any grand gestures to convey emotion, which makes it all the more realistic. It's a bit like the old Disney vs Ghibli animation debate, with Anomalisa clearly representing Ghibli's subtler side of animation. Add to that some incredible settings and creative camera work and you have one of the most impressive-looking stop-motion films to date.

The soundtrack is probably one of the weaker elements of the film, though mostly because it doesn't demand too much attention. It's a decent enough mix of jazz, classical and elevator music, but little more than that. Luckily the dub is on point, which is essential considering the amount of dialogue present. David Thewlis is perfect as Stone, Jennifer Jason Leigh does a wonderful job as Lisa and Noonan takes care of all the other characters. While the three of them have rather recognizable voices, their real-life personas never really eclipsed their characters, a strong plus for an animation film.

screen capture of Anomalisa

Anomalisa isn't a very happy film, nor is it a very eventful one. Looking back there are a few moments of standout weirdness (the conversation in the basement is one, the most realistic puppet lovemaking you'll ever come across another), but strangely enough these aren't the scenes that define the film. Instead it's Stone's lifeless demeanor and the meaningless, shapeless and unrewarding life he leads that makes the biggest impression. In that sense the film reminded me a little of Alexander Payne's About Schmidt, a film that also confronted a grumpy lead character with the emptiness of his life, while drawing just enough comedy from that situation to keep it interesting.

Anomalisa is an interesting film. On the one hand there's the superb work that went into animating the entire film. Even though you're looking at puppets for 90 minutes, they feel incredibly human and lifelike. On the other hand there's a surprising amount of emotional and thematic depth here, so much that I'm hoping my midlife crisis will pass me by completely, or at least announce itself more elegantly than the case here. Johnson and Kaufman did good. Anomalisa turned out a worthy, mature and clever animated film. It's probably not everyone's cup of tea, but it's definitely worth a try.