'Anomalisa' Is As Raw, Honest, Genuine, And Emotional As Stop-Motion Puppets Are Bound To Get

By James Jay Edwards
Released: January 15, 2016
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A man crippled by the mundanity of his life experiences something out of the ordinary.

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Film Review
With movies like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on his resume, writer Charlie Kaufman is well-known for his quirky and strange hipster brand of storytelling. It would only figure that a collaboration between him and fellow director/"Adult Swim" animation specialist Duke Johnson ("Mary Shelley's Frankenhole") would be unforgettable. And that's exactly what Anomalisa is: unforgettable.

Anomalisa is about a motivational speaker/author named Michael Stone (voice of David Thewlis from The Fifth Estate and The Theory of Everything) who spends his days auto-piloting his way through a mundane existence. While on a lecturing engagement in Cincinnati, Michael happens to meet a young woman named Lisa Hesselman (The Hateful Eight's Jennifer Jason Leigh) who seems to be the bright light that has been missing from his drab life. Michael believes that Lisa is the one person who can save him from himself, but he may have so much baggage that he is beyond help.

Anomalisa. Courtesy Paramount Pictures, all rights reserved.

That doesn't sound like a very compelling story, but Anomalisa is the type of movie that has to be seen in order for it to be truly appreciated. It really doesn't have much of a story to it, but that's not its draw; it's just a very raw, honest, genuine, and emotional movie. It's got a heavy message about the hopelessness of everyday life when that life is stuck in a rut. Oh, yeah, and it's comprised entirely of stop motion animation.

Now, just because Anomalisa is animated does not mean that it's a movie for kids. Far from it; it earns its R rating. There's foul language, adult themes, and even a very uncomfortable puppet sex scene. But nestled within all of the gimmicky animation are some very real and thought provoking ideas. Michael Stone is a fascinating character, one who is simultaneously sympathetic and antagonistic - the kind of guy whom audiences love to hate. The tedium and mundanity of Michael's everyday life is represented by that fact that every character in the film besides Lisa and himself - male or female, adult or child, real or imaginary - has exactly the same face and speaks with exactly the same voice ("everyone else" is played by Tom Noonan from Manhunter and Late Phases, who masterfully manages to give each character their own unique personality despite using the same vocal intonations). Anomalisa does things and explores concepts that could not be dealt with in a "normal" live action motion picture.

The feeling that is evoked by Anomalisa is one of heartbreaking nostalgia. Everyone remembers staying up all night with a special someone whom they've just met, talking and laughing until neither can keep their eyes open. Anomalisa captures that feeling and, more importantly, transfers it to the audience. Anomalisa is an experience that is more than simply a movie; it's a happening.
As stated before, Anomalisa is a stop-motion film, but the approach that Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson take with it is that of a regular cinematic production. The movie was shot by experienced stop-motion cinematographer Joe Passarelli (who has also worked on many of Johnson's "Adult Swim" productions), and it's got all of the dramatic lighting, unique camera angles, and selective rack focusing that a live-action movie would have. The "actors" are puppets that are about a foot tall, so every set and prop is miniature, but there is an insane amount of attention in each scene devoted to stuff that many animated features would ignore, little things like steam on a mirror after a shower or red ash on the tips of cigarettes that are being inhaled. Anomalisa isn't the same type of smooth animation that one would find in other stop-motion works such as ParaNorman, or any of the Tim Burton joints like The Nightmare Before Christmas or Corpse Bride; there's a purposeful jerkiness to it, kind of like that which is found in classic stop-motion films like King Kong and The Lost World, that's not always completely effective. But, more often than not, Anomalisa amazes with its technical merits.

Anomalisa. Courtesy Paramount Pictures, all rights reserved.

It's pretty safe to say that Anomalisa is unlike anything that viewers have ever seen. Aside from the innovative animation, there are artistic and narrative devices that make the film a one-of-a-kind experience. At first, it seems almost like an art school project, but as it goes on, it turns into something way bigger.and way better. Because it is so different, there are bound to be people who don't get it, and that's fine. But those who do get it will never forget it. Anomalisa is a must-see, if only so people can say that they have.

Animation, Comedy, Drama
Release Date
January 15, 2016
MPAA Rating
Production Designer
Music Score