279. THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF TOM THUMB (1993)

“We have tried to create a kind of ‘nether world’ that would seem timeless. A strange place that would be uncomfortably familiar.”–Dave Borthwick

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Dave Borthwick

FEATURING: Nick Upton, Deborah Collard

PLOT: When wasp-guts accidentally fall into a jar of artificial sperm, the resultant baby is a fetus-like boy about the size of a thumb. While Tom is still a pre-verbal toddler, men in black suits kidnap him from his poor but loving home and take him to their “Laboratorium” for study. Escaping with the help of a tiny dragon-like creature, Tom stumbles upon to other miniature people who live in a state of eternal war against the “giants,” before reuniting with his father.

Still from The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie’s plot is suggested by the fairy tale “Tom Thumb,” the oldest surviving English folktale, but beyond the presence of a tiny child there are few similarities to the ancient legend.
  • The movie was originally commissioned by the BBC as a ten-minute short to be shown at Christmastime, but they rejected the end product for being too dark. The station changed its mind after the short became an award-winning hit on the festival circuit, and co-funded this one-hour feature version of the story.
  • Tom Thumb was also partly funded by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, who also wrote the theme song.
  • Besides stop-motion animation, Tom Thumb uses a technique called “pixilation,” which is basically the same idea but with live actors instead of models. Director Borthwick found that professional actors lacked the patience to sit still for the hours sometimes required for shots where humans interacted with puppets, so he used animators and technical personnel in the main roles instead (star Nick Upton is a primarily an animator specializing in pixilation).
  • After debuting on television, Tom Thumb toured the film festival circuit and even booked theatrical dates in the U.S., paired with the excellent and bizarre short “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There’s so much to choose from—particularly the surrealistic menagerie of disembodied body parts and mix-and-match homunculi from the Laboratorium—that the wilder images cancel each other out. In fact, it’s the faces of our two leads—the innocent, half-formed clay features of Tom and the greasy, beaming mug of his proud working-class dad—that stick in the mind. Indeed, for the poster and DVD cover images, the producers used such of scene of the two principal characters posing together (it’s a promotional still of a domestic scene that does not actually occur in the movie).

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Flying syringe insect; crucified Santa; halo of vermin

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The tone of this fairy tale is hard to explain: equal parts silent slapstick, dystopian futurism, and ian surrealism, delivered through twitchy visuals that makes it play like a particularly restless dream. There is an unexpected sweetness to the concoction that helps it go down more smoothly than you might expect, but it still leaves a residue of nightmare behind.


Original trailer for The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb

COMMENTS:The had been producing surreal, Gothic stop-motion animation in Britain, often in collaboration with the BBC, for half a decade before Dave Borthwick and his bolexbrothers studio started work on The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb. Presumably, there was cross-fertilization of ideas between the artists; but more importantly, both were heirs to the heritage of Czech Surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer. I think that The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb is actually more in the spirit of Svankmajer than the Quays’ more famous works are; not only that, I think it’s probably more authentically Svankmajerian than anything produced outside of Czechoslovakia. This modern spin on the legend of Tom Thumb would make the perfect companion piece to the Czech’s 1988 reworking of “Alice in Wonderland”: the mixture of live actors with animated puppets, the monstrous creatures, the run-down locales littered with detritus, the fairy tale inspirations, the reluctance to resort to dialogue unless absolutely necessary, all scream “Jan Svankmajer.”

Much of this could also be said of the Quays work, but one Svankmajerian element that Borthwick brings that the Quays rarely do is a black sense of humor. Tom Thumb is full of melodramatic mugging to the camera and slapstick; in fact, the comedy is both broader and more pervasive than Svankmajer’s sly wit. Borthwick is also more clearly influenced by silent film, from the melodramatic facial expressions of his over-projecting actors to the brief flashes of Expressionism (the artificial Caligari-esque longshot view of the hillside city composed of sharp spires). This influence helps to distinguish Tom Thumb from its forebears and contemporary competitors, giving it its own aesthetic rather than making it into a mere Neco Z Alenky clone. The mix of comic and nightmare sensibilities is one of Tom Thumb‘s distinctive features. What are we to make of the crucified Santa Claus we briefly see hanging on the wall of a slatternly transvestite’s apartment? Is it funny, or horrifying? There’s an ambiguity to the world here, and we don’t know how we are supposed to take it. But the comedy helps the story from becoming oppressively grim and depressing—which it threatens to do in the tour through the horrors of the scientists’ vivisection lab, where electric drills pierce deformed flesh, and the torments are so insufferable that a disembodied hand directs Tom to throw a switch that shuts off the life support. There’s no humor there, but the scene where Tom is stolen from his family has a nightmarish joke in it to soften the blow of the terrifying crime: one of the Kafkaesque men-in-black stands stock still holding his arms out to the side, while the husband and wife stand behind him flailing their arms wildly in triple speed. Like in a dream, they’re unable to progress and make their way around the simplest obstacle, and must watch helplessly as the horror unfolds (Tom’s mechanical toy rickshaw driver similarly runs in place while the scene goes on, his wooden feet digging grooves into the table). Played totally straight, Tom’s abduction would be a dramatically scarring event; some distance is necessary to preserve the dreamlike fantasy tone.

The story is brutal, even by fairy tale standards: birth defects, institutional kidnapping, unethical medical experimentation, bereavement. But it does not play as depressingly as it would if the same tale was told straight. That’s partly because of the use of humor, and also because of an audiovisual style that simultaneously enthralls and distances us from the action. Borthwick was successful in his attempt to fashion a new fairy tale world that was strange yet familiar—erring, wisely, on the strange side. The film is nearly silent; the characters “speak” only in expressive grunts, or in Tom’s case in  high-pitched bleats, sufficient to convey the appropriate feeling of fear, wonder, curiosity or love. The first actual line of dialogue is spoken six minutes into the film, and you’ll have to wait for a long time before hearing another. But the film’s most noteworthy feature is not the sound design, nor the stop-motion animation (which we’ve seen before), but the use of pixilation (basically, stop-motion using still frames of live actors). The technique gives the live actors the same jerky, slightly off ambulation that the clay models have. The effect is even stranger, though, because we’ve been trained to suspend disbelief over animated models, but expect real people to move smoothly. Pixilation is put to bizarre ends here, allowing Nick Upton to go through four or five different expressions in one second. There are times where individual objects are animated at different speeds, like in the abduction scene mentioned above or, even more weirdly, in a scene where Tom’s mom eats live sardines for dinner, which squirm on her plate at a faster frame rate until she guts them. There’s also a scene where one character is wearing a scarab brooch that appears to move while she sits still; later, we learn that the brooch is actually alive…

Speaking of scarabs, only the most unobservant person would fail to notice that there are insects in almost every frame of this film. There are so many bugs crawling on every surface of Tom Thumb‘s world that you wonder if the movie might be going through the DTs. Sometimes characters snatch moths from the air and eat them, but even when the camera is not focused on bugs, they are constantly in the background. As a motif they serve a couple of purposes: they convey the filthiness of the surroundings, and they also recall Tom’s presumed origins as the mutant product of genetic crossover between artificial human sperm and wasp gut DNA. Like a bug, Tom is little, and despised by the world (when he’s not ignored as too insignificant to notice). Insects also play a crucial role in the baffling but unforgettable final scene. It’s a coda that apparently shows Tom and his parents reunited in Heaven (although we never see the child’s face, and the bundle Ma Thumb is holding appears to be a normal-sized baby). Everything seems fine, until Pa Thumb looks at the shadow of the family on the nursery room wall. Flies are scurrying about. Pa’s face looks confused, but his expression is otherwise unreadable—is he afraid of what he sees, or simply amazed? The flies then do something which I won’t spoil, but which only creates further ambiguity. We can’t tell if the ending is a happy one. Does the vermin infestation undermines Paradise, or unmask it as a dream? Or were the bugs holy all along—God’s tiny, despised messengers?

The movie’s first shot is of Tom—out of sequence, as he hasn’t even been conceived yet. The last shot is of Pa Thumb. The story is as much about Pa Thumb as it is about Tom. Nick Upton as Pa is the film’s human face; we may pity Tom, and fear for him, but we identify with Pa. His rubber-faced expressions—he smiles and frowns using his entire face, including his chin—make him a comic character in a tragic situation. The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb presents a harsh world: a bleak, impoverished, vermin-infested city of drunks; a world plagued by genetic monsters; a land where freaks live in exile and fight for survival. But at its center is a story of love between father and son, separated by evil forces and trying to find one another again. Mr. Thumb is presumably only Tom’s adoptive father—Tom being the product of artificially insemination gone awry—but the lack of a biological relationship only makes the paternal devotion more touching. Rather than being disturbed or frightened at the sight of his miniature son after he washes away the blood and afterbirth, Pa immediately falls in unconditional love with Tom. Their familial bond is perfect and archetypal, a symbol of the love we all crave from a parent/child relationship, and their separation is genuinely moving. In the same way the comedy dilutes the horror, a beam of love cuts through the setting’s gloomy pessimism. As full of grotesquerie and outright evil as Tom Thumb may be, this movie is no parade of weary nihilism. It’s a fully formed world of light and darkness, monstrosity and beauty, sorrow and joy.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Result has an unreal, time-lapse feel, perfectly suited to the film’s David Lynch-like, industrial-Gothic atmosphere… Surreal ending is ironic (and obscure).”–Derek Elley, Variety (contemporaneous)

“Like a cross between the Brothers Quay, Jan Svankmajer, and David Lynch, Tom Thumb is a dark, eerie retelling of the familiar tale of the tiny boy and his magical adventures in a world of giants… It’s a deliriously wicked hour…”–Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

“The interaction between the creatures and strange-looking humans allows for weird currents of meaning and an emotional resonance that makes this the most moving animated feature for years… one of the best and most unusual British movies in a very long time.”–Kim Newman, Empire

OFFICIAL SITE:

bolexbrothers – Tom Thumb – There’s nothing here that’s actually Tom Thumb related other than a director’s statement, but you can catch up on bolexbrothers’ studios other projects

IMDB LINK: The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Instinctive Decisions–Dave Borthwick, Radical Independent. – This profile of director Borthwick for animation World Magazine centers mainly on Tom Thumb

DVD INFO: Manga Video released a Tom Thumb DVD in 1998 (buy). Although 1998 is now ancient history in the world of home video, the movie still looks great. Of course, a Blu-ray upgrade would be welcome news; we’re not holding our breath, however. The disc includes the bonus short “The Saint Inspector,” which is plenty grotesque and surreal (it features an obese nude man on a pillar), if the style is more twisted-Pixar than Tom Thumb. The disc also includes the trailer, a mega-cut of trailers for other Manga/Palm Pictures releases, a short bio of the bolexbrothers studio, and a list of awards Tom Thumb won (which the producers are happy to splash everywhere they can; the same list is on the back of the DVD cover, on the website, etc,).

[This movie was nominated for review by multiple readers, including Shane Wreck and TMB, who said it was “about a miniature sized fetus in orange overalls,” then asked “(how can that NOT be weird?)” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.]

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