Stop motion animation in film is a genre that has long been geared towards children, with a pervasive emphasis on fantastical creatures and otherworldly backdrops for surreal effect. Recent highlights like Coraline and ParaNorman utilize traditional horror elements and gothic imagery to tell creepy bedtime stories in a non-conventional way. What’s so bracingly original about Anomalisa, the latest work from writer/director Charlie Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson, is how drastically it subverts the traditions of the medium and how authentically it strives to capture the human experience in a way that no other animated film has done before.
The movie follows Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a self-help author of “How May I Help You Help Them?”, as he travels to Cincinnati to give an inspirational speech at a customer service convention. We quickly learn that Stone is depressed and perceives everyone around him as different versions of the same man dressed in various disguises (all voiced by Tom Noonan). When he hears a new voice outside of his hotel room one night, he finds that a woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a beacon of uniqueness in a sea of familiar faces and the two form an instant connection.
Even if this story had been played out in a live-action format, the results would likely still be largely successful but the fact that it’s told not just in stop motion but incredibly fluid stop motion makes this a groundbreaking achievement. The set design and the lighting are impeccable, capturing all of the familiar nuances of a modern hotel and reimagining them for this new, miniature world. The attention to detail simply can’t be understated here; when you realize that the animators had a production goal of 48 frames per day (2 seconds of run time in the film), you begin to appreciate the level of craft that goes into the art form.
Of course, none of this patient effort would matter much if the narrative didn’t match the quality of the animation but luckily, Kaufman has penned his most stripped-down and intimate screenplay thus far. On the surface, it’s a mid-life crisis movie a la Lost In Translation but Kaufman tackles his typical themes of identity and isolation with a more light-hearted and empathetic touch this time around. There are threads of undeniable sadness throughout this film but there are also some unexpectedly playful notes too, perhaps my favorite involving a misleading series of speed dial icons for room service on a hotel room phone.
At the heart of everything is a beautifully rendered love story between Michael and Lisa, in which both characters attempt to push aside their own shortcomings to find a renewed purpose in one another. Like the visible seams in the faces of the puppet models that represent them, these characters have overt flaws that are bluntly put on display for us to examine and to potentially empathize with. In a bizarre way, I began to almost forget that I was watching stop motion at points in the story, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. Anomalisa may just be too peculiar an experience to find a mass audience but as a work of life-like animation, it’s a one-of-a-kind gem.