Three years ago, /Film ran an article about an upcoming stop-motion project based on a Charlie Kaufman play and produced by Starburns Industries, Dan Harmon’s production company. The concept of the guy who last made “Synecdoche, New York” coming together with the guy who last created “Community” for a project made outside the studio structure—a stop-motion animated short, no less—blew my 17-year-old mind. Just as cool: the film was to be directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, who collaborated with Harmon to direct the “Community” stop-motion classic “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.” I immediately contributed to the film’s Kickstarter campaign, happy I could help in a tiny way to make this magical partnership come true. I waited eagerly, knowing that by the end of the following year I would get to witness something weird, unique, and maybe brilliant.
So it would happen, the “Anomalisa” team raised a ton of money, and was able to expand their plans into a feature-length film. Johnson and Kaufman experimented with creating their puppets through 3-D printers, and a year and a half of production became three. The extended time does make logistical sense: 13 animators worked ten hours a day to produce, on average, 15 seconds of animation. The final product was received on the festival circuit this fall with rapturous critical response and the Grand Jury Prize at Venice Film Festival. And it brings me great pleasure to say the film lives up to the production and critical hype: Kaufman’s first film in seven years, “Anomalisa” is a moody, surreal stop-motion nightmare, and also happens to be among the sweetest, most heart-wrenching films of the year.
Much like Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Kaufman’s style works in a stop-motion universe so well you come to wonder why it’s taken him this long to do it. The locations of “Anomalisa” are mundane for animation—the film centers on the existential crisis of a motivational speaker named Michael Stone (David Thewlis) and takes place largely in an all-too-perfect Cleveland hotel. Yet Kaufman is telling a story about artificiality in conflict with honesty. The hand-craftedness of each puppet is visible—in fact, the lines across every puppet face were not removed in post. The voice work of the puppet ensemble is mannered the same way—sure enough, Tom Noonan voices every puppet around Michael and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Lisa. The painting at the Cleveland hotel really does feel this cold and still; you could even say that a shot of the painting presented may not be changing at all. He pushes the fabrication of this world to the forefront so that the construction of the world fully envelops this story.
This sense of forced-ness, of “homeyness,” is what makes it weird when “Anomalisa” shows you a puppet penis (or puppet sex, or two puppet hands holding each other) and the image feels so honest you want to cry. The external struggle on the sleeve of Kaufman and Johnson’s film provides the baseline for how Michael approaches the world: on the phone or face to face, he plays the part of a loving husband and father. Checking into the Al Fregoli and settling into his room, it’s clear there’s a hollow center to Michael that’s buried too deep to cry out for help. He is trapped in the sameness and superficiality of ‘nice’ hotel rooms, in a sea of fans that adore his customer service publications, in constant halls and rows of voices that all look and sound the same. This commonality sucks you right into “Anomalisa.” Watching Michael find it impossible to get the right temperature in a shower, step out of the tub and appear indistinguishable from a real-life human being is more than an honest, funny gag. It’s an accomplishment that should feel impossible in this world. This is what the best of Kaufman’s work does—make the surreal and extreme all the more personal by rooting it the eminently relatable.
The fragile reality is taken up a notch when the titular Lisa enters the picture. If Noonan’s voice is the most somber and droll in existence, Leigh’s is potentially warmer and more human than even Thewlis’. As with Kate Winslet in “Eternal Sunshine” or Catherine Keener in “Being John Malkovich,” Lisa is a “beautiful soul” kind of woman looked at through the male gaze of the central protagonist, but Kaufman, just as before, uses this character type to subvert expectation. Leigh establishes Lisa as a complete human being who has spent eight years alone and built a life for herself. She caters to Michael’s restless male ego at the peak of a fleeting romance, but there comes a point in the film where his world starts literally falling to pieces around him, and Lisa recoils. Kaufman sends us so deep into Michael’s point of view in a way that can only be accomplished through stop-motion. The film’s turns are audacious, clever, and heartbreaking, yet always circle back to Kaufman’s voice: a lonely soul begging the world for an honest connection.
“Anomalisa” first existed as a “sound play.” Kaufman once expressed that this device let the audience hear and see completely different things at once, and put those feelings in conflict with one another. Similarly, the artificiality vs. reality that the final film wrestles with can only be accomplished through its surreally beautiful animation. “Anomalisa” opens in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 31, and Paramount plans to roll out the film nationwide in January. “Anomalisa” is more than a great film, or another Charlie Kaufman masterpiece—it’s a blue-moon animation landmark, one that comes around every decade or so to remind us what this medium can do that no other can.