Putting the lie to the argument that stop-motion is a kids-only affair that can’t compete with CGI animation, Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa debuted last week at Telluride, with an eye toward shaking up this year’s animation Oscar race.
It would be a fitting accomplishment for the unorthodox Kaufman, whose singular psy-fi masterpieces Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were respectively nominated for and awarded Oscars for best original screenplay. Based on his 2005 play presented under the pseudonym Francis Fregoli, the R-rated Anomalisa marks Kaufman’s sophomore feature film directorial effort, alongside co-director Duke Johnson, who helmed Adult Swim’s irreverent Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole and Community’s stop-motion holiday episode, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.”
A 2012 Kickstarter campaign for Anomalisa, launched by Burbank, California-based Starburns Industries — of which Johnson is a partner alongside Community’s Dan Harmon, Moral Orel’s Dino Stamatopoulos, The Simpsons’ Joe Russo II and King of the Hill’s James A. Fino — raised over $400,000, which at the time was a record-setting amount for a crowdfunded animation project.
Initially planned as a 40-minute short film, Anomalisa’s creators have been resolute that the film remains a Hollywood outlier. “We are still staying out of the studio system,” the filmmakers explained in a recent Kickstarter update, before “Team Anomalisa” headed to the major fall festival circuit in Telluride, Venice, San Sebastian, and Toronto in search of distribution. “We are selling the movie on our own…and as we close in on a distribution deal, one of our first priorities will be to fulfill all rewards as soon as the distribution is in place.”
The arguably bigger deal beyond distribution would be Anomalisa’s qualification for the 88th Academy Awards, where it could potentially compete alongside big-ticket CGI films like Pixar’s Inside Out, the highest-grossing domestic animated film of the year, and Minions, soon to be the second-highest grossing animated film of all time.
Aside from Wes Anderson’s somewhat mature stop-motion The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s politically charged Persepolis, and few others, Oscar entrants for Best Animated Feature have mostly been pulled from the ranks of what is popularly considered family entertainment. It is arguably only the psychedelic Rango — whose director Gore Verbinski rhetorically asked, “What happened to the Ralph Bakshis of the world? We’re all sitting here talking about family entertainment. Does animation have to be family entertainment?” — that has walked away with an Oscar for an animated film whose scope extends beyond the family demographic.
Despite his impressive Oscar resume, odds on a win aren’t exactly in Kaufman’s favor. Anchored like most of his films by a miserable man (David Thewlis) on the verge of a social and psychological breakdown, and in search of an idealized love with another woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Anomalisa is a paranoid nightmare of persecution and redemption. From its scenes of nudity, sex, and masturbation to the conspicuous seams running across its puppets’ faces, Anomalisa is a raw and mature animated journey through joy and depression that stands out like a sore existentialist next to Inside Out, Minions, or even its stop motion brethren like Shaun the Sheep Movie.
That said, reviews so far are upbeat, for lack of a better Kaufmanesque term. “Its emotional power creeps out from under the subtle humor and leaves a subcutaneous imprint that lingers long after the movie is over,” said The Hollywood Reporter after a festival screening in Venice. “Anomalisa is a movie with wit to burn and enough incidental touches that the total achievement feels immense,” added The Guardian.
“It was kind of cool that we went into this thing so long ago and worked under the radar, not knowing if it was going to work or be good,” Kaufman told Variety. “Then we’re finally here and, you know, people are responding to it. That’s very satisfying. And we did it on our terms, completely outside of any system. We had no one to answer to except ourselves and it was great.”