Oh, irony. In any other decade, Phil Tippett's Mad God would've been one of the most distinctive and unique projects in ages, except right now, it is not. Tippett and his wonderful bit of handcrafted stop-motion animation are forced to share their time in the spotlight with Takahide Hori's Junk Head, a film it shares quite a bit of similarities with. Don't be mistaken though, both films are still very personal and distinct success stories that are sure to delight fans of dark animation, it's just a bit more difficult to appreciate the films on their own merit, without making obvious comparisons.
Tippett's Mad God started 30 years ago as a passion project. You may not have heard of his name before, but Tippett is an industry veteran who worked as a special effects guy on some of the biggest blockbusters Hollywood has ever produced (Star Wars and Jurassic Park stand out). After a hiatus of 20 years, Tippett finally took up production again, and with the help of some friends and a Kickstarter backing he was finally able to complete this project, even though that would end up taking him another 10 years. Just to say that this was never meant to be a very commercial project, so don't go in expecting a simple dark fantasy narrative.
In between, Tippett released three separate parts that would later be integrated into the final film. Like Hori, Tippett did have some trouble trying to make a coherent whole of a passion project that took more than a couple of years to finish, and I do believe some extra tweaking and editing might've been in order to make Mad God a slightly less puzzling experience (without hurting any of the initial appeal of course). As with other critiques raised in the rest of this review, these are all just minor issues that hardly affect the core quality of Tippett's work.
As there are no dialogues, the plot will take a bit of figuring out, and one viewing certainly won't be enough to make sense of all the nightmarish lore presented throughout the film. The basic premise is simple enough, and people familiar with less narrative films won't have too much of a problem trying to make sense of it all. A heavily suited up man is sent to the depths of hell to complete a precarious mission. On his way down, he encounters scenes of extreme agony, and he has to be wary of monsters stalking these realms, but he never wavers in the face of danger.
With no dialogue, a limited narrative and a creator with a background in oldskool effects work, it should be no surprise Mad God ended up a very visceral film that puts a lot of focus on the visuals. And it must be said, the stop-motion work is stupendously great. The grotesque designs, the crazy attention to detail, the elaborate camera work and insane sets are like nothing you have seen before. The only thing that put me off was the inclusion of several live action sequences. I loved Tippett's stop-motion realm so much that these scenes kept pulling me out of the film. I didn't really understand the necessity for them either, and looking at the heavy processing of these scenes, Tippett clearly understood that they might be a distraction to some. It's just a shame he didn't quite manage to get these scenes right, other than that this was a true visual marvel.
I was quite disappointed the soundtrack never managed to match the visual splendor. A film like this only gets better when cinematography and sound build on top of each other, but that's not really the case here. The progressive/shoegaze sound is a bit weak for the tone and vibe of the film, though that may be a bit of an age thing. I would've loved something darker, harsher and more oppressive. Preferably a wall of sound that would be vibrant enough to not only support the visuals, but make their impact even more profound. The soundtrack isn't too bad, and it doesn't really detract from the film, but it did end up feeling a bit underwhelming, especially for a passion project with little commercial worry. I wasn't a big fan of the voice work either (gibberish only), but that was a bit easier to ignore as these moments are rarer.
So now we have two stop-motion projects, with no direct commercial goals, helmed by wayward directors who spent several years developing their project by themselves, with just a tiny bit of Kickstarter aid, about lone figures who have to descend to an unknown, dark and uninviting world where danger lurks around every corner. The two films are similar enough that they'll appeal to the same niche, though look closer, and you'll find notable differences. Junk Head is a loose relative to the Japanese cyberpunk scene, with a more industrial and Gigeresque feel to it, whereas Mad God finds itself embedded into the 80s US horror and fantasy. Though people are sure to have their personal favorite, both films are must-sees for fans of stop-motion animation, and the unique peculiarities of each project deserve way more attention than any accidental similarities.
If I've been quite critical in my review, it's only because films like are this are rare and Tippett clearly has the talent and vision to pull it off. Any critique I have is minor compared to the beauty, skill and effort that is put on display here. The hellish setting, Tippet's fantastical creations, the intricate and lush stop-motion animation and the inspired camera work add up to a trip that knows no equal. I'm not certain Tippett has another film in him after this, but with Mad God, he leaves a legacy that is quite a bit more impressive than any of the other projects he was involved in. Watch this if you get the opportunity.