Tag Archives: Stop motion animation

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, Continue reading 279. THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF TOM THUMB (1993)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1985)

DIRECTED BY: Will Vinton

FEATURING: James Whitmore (voice)

PLOT: The acclaimed author, with three of his most famous characters in tow, recounts a few of his famous tales while racing in a fantastical airship to meet up with Halley’s Comet.

Still fromThe Adventures of Mark Twain (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The unique properties of the Claymation stop-motion technique give Mark Twain a distinctive look and feel, and in key moments, the film manages to capture the subject’s complex inner voice better than almost any adaptation of his work. But the attempt to graft an exploration of the many facets of the personality of Samuel Clemens onto what is clearly meant to be a delightful children’s entertainment results in a metaphysical mishmash that’s more messy than it is mindbending. There’s not really anything like The Adventures of Mark Twain, which actually makes it harder to peg for the purposes of this project; the pendulum swings mightily between bafflement at what they were trying to do and amazement at what they did.

COMMENTS: Several years ago, a video started making the rounds across the interwebs. It bore the title, “very creepy, disturbing children’s cartoon, banned from TV,” and featured a strange headless creature with a mask instead of a face who makes a small village of tiny, happy, featureless people for the amusement of three children, and then proceeds to destroy said village in a flourish of calamity and misery.

Of course, the cartoon was not “banned from TV”, and even without attribution, a keen eye would recognize the unique plasticine style as that of animation pioneer Will Vinton. Best-known for his commercial work (most prominently the California Raisins), Vinton gained notoriety for an aggressively detailed approach to stop-motion animation. In contrast to, say, the Aardman house style, which is consistently smooth and a little stodgy, Vinton got deep into the craggy details, carving every deep wrinkle and wild strand of hair in thick, fingerprint-impressed clay. In addition to advertisements, Vinton’s work landed him sequences in TV shows and movies, music videos, and a series of holiday specials, to say nothing of an Oscar and three more nominations for his short film work. Mark Twain was his only feature-length project, and a curious one it turns out to be.

From the get-go, this is a perplexing tale being told. Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher—all Twain creations—spot the famous author planning to fly a giant dirigible to the stars in pursuit of Halley’s Comet. (As the film’s epigram reminds us, Samuel Clemens was born in 1835, contemporaneously to one of the comet’s periodic appearances, and the author frequently referenced his expectation that he would “go out” with the comet upon its return.) They have no notion of being characters from Twain’s mind, and he only obliquely references their roles as characters in his novels. Once they are ensconced as part of the crew, he introduces them to some of his other Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN (1985)

CAPSULE: THE OSSUARY AND OTHER TALES (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Various

PLOT: The collection of short films on this disc range from people-puppet tellings of classic opera to unconventional documentaries, as well as examples of what Svankmajer is most known for: stop motion animation with a decidedly macabre aura of cheekiness.

Still from The Ossuary and Other Tales
“The Last Trick”

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It would be easy to argue that these short films are all very well done, and easier still to contend that a handful of them are disorientingly bizarre. However, the overall degree of weirdness fluctuates greatly, and seeing as this is a compilation of shorts anyway, Mr. Svankmajer will have to make do with his feature-length Certifications.

COMMENTS: Jan Svankmajer’s influence is well known to the visitors of this website. His body of work, beginning in 1964 with “The Last Trick,” has inspired everyone from ‘s to the Pennsylvanian duo, the . The Ossuary and Other Tales is something of a scatter-shot collection of his short films from the mid-1960s through the late 1980s, and is intriguing both for its content and its omissions. Over the course of two hours, the viewer gets to marvel at increasingly surreal sleight-of-hand from a pair of competing magicians (“The Last Trick”), watch a summary of the earth’s life forms put to classic dance riffs (“Historia Naturae [Suita]”), see ominous social commentary (“The Garden”), and even catch up on some classic opera (sans opera) with “Don Juan.” The overall result is a nice showcase of Svankmajer’s scope and talent, but it leaves one feeling that there are some gaps.

Two of the highlights of the anthology are “The Ossuary” (1970) and “Castle of Otranto” (1979). Both are documentaries. The former is made up entirely of shots of the famed Sedlec Ossuary, home to the remains of forty to seventy thousand people whose bones are arranged in intricate formations. Most notable are an enormous bone chandelier and the coat of arms of the royal house that funded the project. The voice-over from the never-seen tour guide provides commentary, challenging the school children the guide is ostensibly lecturing to contemplate what they could hope to make with all this human material, and constantly reminding them that there is a 50 crown fine (“to be paid immediately!”) for touching the remains.

“Castle of Otranto” is more conventional in that it features an interviewer speaking with an amateur archaeologist who is convinced the fabled story from Horace Walpole’s Gothic tale is based on an actual castle, the Otrhany ruins found in (then) Czechoslovakia. The documentary bits are interspersed with Gilliam-esque (Svankmajer-esque?) animations of Walpole’s story, one that involves love, betrayal, and a truly massive knight. The amateur archaeologist contends that the Otrhany ruins show evidence of both the existence and gargantuan size of said knight as described in the book; the interviewer is skeptical, providing some mundane explanations for the archaeologist’s circumstantial evidence. In a nice twist, the words of doubt prompt a tumbling of rocks and debris on the pair and the camera pans up to a massive gauntlet smashing through the tower above them.

There is too little space to cover everything included here, but at the same time I was left wanting more material. Those who enjoyed the “uncanny valley” effect of the Certified Weird Marquis will revel in Svankmajer’s “Don Juan,” with its people dressed as marionettes. The dangers of solitary drinking and soccer obsession are explored in “Virile Games,” which features a man slowly getting hammered while watching a match on TV, and combines live-action, cut-out animation, and stop motion (the last of which showcases the offing of the soccer players in various clever ways). So there is a wealth of material here: but not nearly all of it. Looking over a list of Svankmajer’s shorts, it appears that maybe just half show up in The Ossuary. Hopefully a truly comprehensive Blu Ray disc will come along to put things right; until then, I advise completists to pick up what they can where they can.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a great compilation of truly odd little films.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk

(This movie was nominated for review by “hazebass7,” who said “This movie is teeming with weird imagery and a great avant-garde feel. I was greatly entertained by this collection’s weirdness and I think that it would be a great addition to the list!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE COMB (1990)

AKA The Comb: From the Museums of Sleep

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Joy Constaninides, Witold Scheybal

PLOT: A mysterious faceless figure thwarts a man’s efforts to reach a sleeping woman within her dream.

Still from "The Comb" (1991)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Cleverly combining live-action film with their signature superpowered stop-motion animation, the constructed this cheerfully cryptic little vignette. Using skillful in-camera effects, the viewer travels from the outer world into the inner one with ease, shifting from blurry black-and-white to pixie-ish color. Dream logic prevails, but in this movie the Quay brothers temper any bleakness with a refreshing sense of wonder.

COMMENTS: Inside the dreams of a slumbering woman, a lively little hero pursues a sleeping heroine, maneuvering through narrow passages, a stylized woodland, and inside (perhaps?) an impossibly high passageway tucked into an improbably small cottage. Outside the dream, the woman on the bed tosses and turns as she sleeps. The intermittent twiching of her fingers is doubled by the blurry twitchings of the dream’s antagonist—or is that cloaked figure the antagonist? Could he be the protector of the sleeping woman within her dream? A few intertitles give the place and time (“edge of the forest” and “Autumn”) and then set off the starting gun: “…suddenly the air grew hard.” What exactly is happening in “The Comb,” however, is probably impossible to know.

Of course, that is neither a hindrance to its quiet grandeur nor a disappointment to the open-minded viewer. Half a decade after “Street of Crocodiles,” the Quay brothers had broadened their horizons (becoming involved in a documentary as well as some music videos). Their creativity is undulled, however, and in many ways “The Comb” is harder to probe than any of their work that had come before. There is a rough flow of events, and a fairy-tale mood set up in the opening credits. Indeed, the dream is full of fairy-tale tropes: Autumn, “the woods”, an inaccessible heroine, ladders, mysterious menace. It’s all there, put together with a logic that, though consistent within itself, is some levels removed from our own workaday thinking.

The cinematic tricks in “The Comb” stand as the brothers’ greatest achievements up to that point. While I was trying to figure out a sense of scale as the camera moved from the forest backwards into the cottage, my efforts were disrupted when the camera dropped through an opening in the floor. The visual sleight-of-hand involved to compact a larger area into the smaller one is amazing, and there are several shots where one sees ever-climbing ladders, arranged in dreamy haphazardry. Driving the point home, the Quays even had a little traveling ladder in the background of this runged chasm. Suffice it to say, the brothers captured the dream milieu very handily, leaving the Comb‘s poor protagonist with plenty of space to cross before he could find the sleeping woman.

The most satisfying artifice of the Comb is how the (blurred) real-world is combined with the (sharp) dream-world. During the course of the movie, the camera travels between them, seemingly through a mirror (or shadow-box?) above the woman’s bed. The swaying objects within the dream are used by its figures to calm the dreamer when she is fitful in her real-world sleep. Finishing off the piece, the woman wakes up and does the normal stretching that is so enjoyable after a little sleep. Reaching to her nightstand, she shakes off the final vestiges of sleep, with close-up shots interspersed with shimmers of the dream. She pauses while combing her hair, and clicks her thumbnail down the comb’s teeth. The clicking resurrects, oh-so-briefly, the little hero from before. She remembers and smiles.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I would endorse the verdict of Slarek, whose DVD Outsider website, reviewing the Quays’ short films DVD, sums up the film as ‘divinely baffling.’”–Claire Kitson, Close-up Film Centre (DVD)