"Anything different is good," Bill Murray's character postulates in Groundhog Day.
The same might be said for today's movie animation, which is drowning in cookie-cutter, computer-generated, action-based films designed to please every age group. Though 2015 saw Pixar (Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur) and Aardman Animations (Shaun the Sheep Movie) rise above the homogeneity and show real heart, no animated film has broken the mold so spectacularly in the last few years as Anomalisa.
The mold breaker is Charlie Kaufman. The writer (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and director (Synecdoche, New York) is known for his innovation but has never delved into stop-motion animation before. Not surprisingly, he and co-director Duke Johnson turn the medium on its head by digitally creating realistic faces and figures, printing them with 3-D printers and then shooting them in the frame-by-frame manual-positioning method of conventional stop-motion. The result is mesmerizing but also slightly disturbing in the "uncanny valley" tradition of "almost reality." Still, as with most great art, the style serves the subject, even if you find that style a tad creepy.
Speaking of subjects, Kaufman has created an askew everyman in Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis of the Harry Potter films), a person overwhelmed by the monotony of his existence and disappointed in his lack of passion for both marriage and life. His status as a self-help guru with expertise in customer service requires him to travel the country, lecturing on the value of the individual. Yet, ironically, every person in his world seems exactly the same and – in one of the most brilliant cinematic uses of sound ever – has the same voice, Tom Noonan (Manhunter, Last Action Hero).
"It's boring. Everything's boring. I think I might have psychological problems," Michael admits to an old flame while sitting at the bar at the resort in which he's staying, the Fregoli Hotel. (Fregoli delusion is the belief that everyone is the same person.) But then he meets Lisa Hesselman (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), an anomaly in a cold, coarse, impersonal world.
"Your voice – it's like magic," Michael tells her.
And Lisa reciprocates, confessing, in song, that she wants to "be the one who walks in the sun," à la Cyndi Lauper.
Anomalisa addresses painful adult issues and presents uncomfortably honest situations in a way few animated movies have before. Sexually graphic and peppered with curse words, this is the film Ralph Bakshi might have made if he had twice the skill and three times the intelligence. Its only major drawback is that, at 90 minutes, it feels stretched thin. If it were just under 40, as originally conceived (based on Kaufman's play), it could have walked away with the Oscar for animated short. It also can feel disjointed at times – much like its pieced-together puppets – but that is part of its charm.
Though the concept of sexual stop-motion might turn off some audiences, Kaufman's fascinatingly original creation should be mentioned in the same breath as his best previous work and the top animated films of the last several years.
4 out of 5 stars