Stop-motion ‘Anomalisa’ masterfully displays humanity

Paramount Pictures/Courtesy

Aggressively artificial, yet achingly human, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s “Anomalisa” is a masterpiece in design, story and execution. Starting as a sound play in 2005 in which there were only a Charlie Kaufman script, three actors and accompanying music by legendary composer Carter Burwell, “Anomalisa” has now been adapted into a stop-motion film that builds upon the essence of the original.

The basic plot of the film follows Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a famous author known for his successful customer service techniques, as he has to go to Cincinnati to give a speech at the Fregoli Hotel. Once there, he meets a girl named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who stands out from the rest of the people in his world. She is an anomaly. Over the course of one night together, Michael and Lisa connect and begin a tryst.

While this setup may not sound different from the traditional romantic dramedy blueprint, it’s in the design of this fully realized world that the movie becomes an unique experience unlike anything else this year, and can only be compared to prior Academy Award-winning work from Kaufman, including “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

From the first shot of the film, things seem off-kilter. The first image is of a plane flying and a voice (Tom Noonan) discussing how awful his life is. Then another voice is dubbed over his, also played by Noonan. Then more voices, all played by Tom Noonan, begin to speak over each other, none of the conversations related other than they are all in the same monotone voice. The camera then slowly zooms in through the window of the plane, showing Michael Stone, who looks completely different from the rest of the characters. This initial shot sets the groundwork for all of that is to follow. Michael Stone is unable to connect to people in his world. Men, women, young and old all have the same basic artificially designed composite face, even Michael’s wife and son, all performed by Tom Noonan.

Because of this, when Michael finally hears and eventually sees Lisa, he is instantly drawn to her. She stands out from the rest of the sameness. This relationship between the two, and Michael’s relationship with the rest of the world, while seemingly unrealistic in design, in actuality hits a raw nerve in creating a relatable story of feeling disconnected from everyone but that one uniquely, perfectly imperfect person. Whether Michael Stone is depressed, on the verge of a mental breakdown or something else entirely is left open to interpretation. It’s this specific point of view that creates a story universally accessible and relatable.

While most of the film is the main two characters, the film does use the mechanical, hand-created nature of stop-motion to remind the audience the artificiality of the world. At one point, before Michael meets Lisa, he stares in the mirror and his jaw falls off, drawing attention to alienation and lack of control Michael has over his state of mind. There’s even another sequence, after a climactic night with Lisa, where he has nightmarish visions manifesting about his guilt over his affair with Lisa.

Yet the film never forgets the feeling of being human and how we all feel a little lost in this overwhelming and disjointed world.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Charlie Kaufman explained the intention of the design elements. “I read about something called the Fregoli delusion, which is the belief everybody is the same person and I found the thought of that was a metaphorical, interesting thing to talk about. Loneliness and lack of connection to other people,” Kaufman said.

First-time feature director Duke Johnson, known for directing the animated Christmas special of “Community” and episodes of “Morel Orel,” added, “We’re trying to do something mature and nuanced and subtle and delicate. From an animation standpoint, it’s a huge challenge technically and creatively in how to portray that. Just the story, more than anything, that’s what excited me about it. Having an opportunity to push the medium in a direction I’ve never seen before and worked in before.”

While the concept is simple, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson have achieved everything they have set out to do. Not only will “Anomalisa” stand as the best animated movie of 2015, but beyond simple genre categorization, the film is the most human, heartbreaking, haunting and mature film of the year.

Contact Levi Hill at [email protected].