By: Muneeb Arshid
The genre of animation has historically been seen as primarily being targeted towards audience members of a younger age. The films that work tend to be those that can engage both a younger audience as well the elders that have given the kids a ride to the cinema. Case in point, Inside Out from 2015 was a film that kept the kids glued to their seats in enjoyment, but had the emotional depth that kept the adults in their seats contemplating the issues that were brought up in the film.
No, this is not our review of another typical animation for kids (that comes next week); this is our review of Anomalisa, a completely adult animation with subject matter that only working and social adults would understand and have a connection with.
There is an inherent disproportion between animations aimed at children and adults and for a good reason since adults have the attention span to be able to sit through films of many different genres. The last adult animation that had critical acclaim was Chico & Rita (2010), but suffered the fate that most of these sorts of animations do, that being a lack of box office attention. A lot of that same critical attention has now shifted its focus onto Anomalisa and the creative mind of Charlie Kaufman, he of the masterpieces that be Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich.
Anomalisa is the story of one Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) who is unable to interact with others at a deeper level. He shows a lack of interest in his surroundings and it is demonstrated that everything has gotten very mundane for him. The film takes place over a two day period where Stone is in Cincinnati to give a talk about his self-help book. Right from the opening of the film, there is no sense of rush in progressing through the film; rather, co-directors Kaufman and Duke Johnson take a deliberately long time in setting up both the setting and the character of Stone himself. However, Stone’s problem, as the film very slowly reveals (and doesn’t explicitly tell us, a welcome respite from the constant handholding present in many a film) is that Stone has given up on life and views every person that he sees and interacts with as one identical white male. Everything changes for Stone when out of the blue, instead of hearing the same monotone voice (Tom Noonan) that he’s been hearing for a long time, he hears the voice of a woman, which catches him by surprise. That woman ends up being Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Michael’s life is changed, albeit only for about a day. From there, the film moves evolves into the journey of a man who has temporarily found solace in this beauty during his short stay at a nondescript hotel.
Charlie Kaufman is renowned as an auteur who takes on the role of exploring the mind. Much of his past filmography, including Anomalisa, tackles similar topics be it when he was writing or in his directorial live-action film in Synecdoche, New York. Kaufman’s films have always made people think, not only about the story on the surface but more so about the goings on in the subsurface (or subconscious in Kaufman’s case). That is the case with Anomalisa as well. He tackles an issue that a lot of working class adults may have experienced at one point or another. It’s also an issue (the onset of mental illness) that is very prominent and important in more recent times nowadays. The character of Michael Stone is portraying what someone would feel if they felt that their life had gone stale and mundane and did not have the energy to do anything every single day. In terms of that portrayal, Kaufman has done well once again in telling his story about a man who finds solace from the monotony of his life.
Anomalisa isn’t the perfect film that many reviewers are hailing it to be, especially with the awards buzz that it is garnering. It is, however, a very solidly made film, albeit not without its problems. First, one of the aspects that work for the film are its utterly gorgeous stop-motion animation. Stop-motion hasn’t always been my cup of tea, but right from the opening shot, the animation is not only beautiful but intricately detailed in every little aspect from the set up of Michael’s hotel room to the identical faces that he sees everywhere around him. The other strong facet of Anomalisa is the actual direction of the film. Both Johnson and Kaufman really take their time telling their story of Michael Stone; a pace that feels more like what we saw in The Revenant and not from a 90-minute animation. Even though you feel the pace as being slow, it helps that everything is so meticulously created that the film’s slowness does not become an issue because you appreciate it that much more.
Even though I’ve spoken very highly of how Anomalisa has been made thus far, there are issues with the film, with one glaring misstep. The misstep regards the writing and the direction the writing took in the final act. I guess it can be viewed as being more of a tonal shift, than a writing problem, but the final act was an issue nonetheless. The entire film rattles along at its slow pace (yes, it sounds weird but you’ll see when you give the film a gander for yourselves) for the most part of the film until the point where Michael has to actually give his talk. Up until that point, the film carefully sets up both Stone and his life and then slowly brings Lisa into the mix. Then it purposefully progresses with their relationship and how Stone has seemingly broken the monotony that he has been stuck in for the past however many years. When Michael actually gets motivated to do his talk, he goes off on multiple tangents that alienates the audience that are there to listen to their hero. The more I think about the way the film shows how Michael literally loses his mind, it actually makes me think that the way the final act’s odd delivery was done deliberately in an effort to show how a person might be forced to compensate for their mental issues. Initially after the screening, I felt that it may have been a misstep from the filmmakers, but now I have to think that in terms of storytelling, it works immaculately. However, the tone is still an issue where I believe Kaufman and co. could’ve shown a different adaptation of their story that was more consistent with the rest of the film rather than being something that felt disjointed from the first two-thirds.
The tone of Anomalisa does not work for the final act, moving from a slow-paced character development piece to eventually something more similar to Kaufman’s previous films. However, the combination of beautiful animation with a beautiful and simply told story end up propelling Anomalisa to a height where it stands alongside the best of genre films. It may not be as great as Chico & Rita, as the great Roger Ebert attested to, but I think it’s up there in hitting the right chord for a very specific subset of the population, and the population in general. Anomalisa, despite its problems, earns a very respectable grade of B (7.8/10).