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'Anomalisa' is No Ordinary Animated Film

Charlie Kaufman's film explores the banality and sadness of adult life

Jan. 19, 2016
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The Oscar-nominated animated feature Anomalisa is no Shrek or Madagascar. It’s not a family film, even at the sophisticated level of Pixar at its best. Anomalisa is one of the few purely adults-only animated features since Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat (1972), but is utterly unlike that earlier movie in tone. Bakshi was a cynic with a corroded heart. Anomalisa is the work of Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation), an ironist with a philosopher’s mind.

Kaufman co-directed Anomalisa with Duke Johnson, an expert in stop-motion animation, the technology that brought King Kong to life in the 1933 classic. In Anomalisa, stop-motion serves to make the familiar look unfamiliar, lifting everyday life into sharper relief as protagonist Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) plods sadly through an existence drained of meaning or purpose. A popular motivational author in danger of losing his motivation, Stone flies to Cincinnati to address a business seminar on customer service. Michael is tired of his own bromides and distracted by thoughts of a wife he no longer loves.

Banality is Anomalisa’s leitmotif, starting with the chatter overheard onboard the airliner and trailing through the airport’s low hum of loudspeaker announcements and the cab ride to Michael’s hotel. The driver is garrulously uninteresting, babbling without listening, mouthing catch phrases about the Cincinnati zoo and the city’s chili that recur often in Anomalisa. Michael’s pricey hotel is a façade of bland comfort; his room is standard-issue deluxe. Everyone Michael encounters is engaged in meaningless banter, repetitious small talk that barely penetrates his wall of melancholy.

Michael tries to hook up with an old lover but she has changed, turned neurotic, withdrawn, paranoid. Their encounter at the hotel lounge is brief and unpleasant. Later that night, Michael meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a customer service team leader from a wholesale bakery manufacturer who drove with her colleague from Akron to hear his talk the next day. “Oh my God!” she reacts upon meeting the writer of the motivational book that changed her life from dire to merely dreary. They go to it in Michael’s big, neatly turned-down hotel room bed.

The situations and dialogue are true to life yet sharply highlighted by the awkward gait of stop-motion animation. Likewise, the graphic stop-motion animated sex scene comes across as a desperate bid by lonely people whose faces resemble snap-on masks while simulating the human form and acutely conveying expression. Michael’s curse is that while he’s smarter than everyone around him, he lacks the crutch of meaningfulness. Everything everyone says is just the echo of everyone else’s words in a world of sounds without significance.



4 stars

Starring David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Directed by Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufman

Rated R


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