Friday, January 15, 2016

Review: "World of Tomorrow" is an Existentially Powerful Short from a Minimalist Maestro

Scene from World of Tomorrow
*NOTE: Originally published on Optigrab.

There is a chance that last September provided one memorable moment on The Simpsons. It wasn't the unmemorable death or the dreaded Family Guy crossover episode. It was actually the first thing that started the series' 26th season and served almost as an aggrandizing cry of the show's quality. There was a sci-fi couch gag in which the world stared in confusion as TV's favorite yellow family turned into shapes and spouted nonsense. To a larger population, this is likely the introduction to renegade artist Don Hertzfeldt, whose mixture of bleak humor and existential theories makes his minimalist style one of the most unique things on the market. To an extent, The Simpsons was what was needed to promote something by someone so... odd. With his latest 16-minute short, World of Tomorrow, he continues to push boundaries and prove that there's magic outside of CG animation. 

The short has a very simple premise, kind of. One day a little girl named Emily Prime (Winona Mae) discovers a computer where she meets Emily (Julia Pott); a woman from the future. They are related, but not in the most predictable of ways. In fact, the set-up is itself perfectly absurd and allows for the short to evolve with its characters. As Emily takes Emily Prime through the future and discusses the melancholic events, there's an immediate and jarring disconnect that is rather comedic. The child is simplistic and with few lines punctuates the adult's ventilation of grief with profound optimism in simple yes/no responses. As per Hertzfeldt usual, even the way that the voices are modulated is jarring with the child sounding more echoing and the adult more mechanic and into a pattern.

While the story will do its best to amaze and impress along with some creative writing, it should be noted that the animation is a curious component. Much like Hertzfeldt's previous major work It's Such a Beautiful Day, it is a compilation of concepts, specifically of mixing normalized scenery with futuristic settings that are busy and angular with shapes bouncing around. The paint work is splotchy and there's very little of clarity visually. It is a fascinating experiment because it allows viewers to interpret a more realized universe of which these characters inhabit. 

If it seems off-putting to watch a minimalist film, it is likely because of how singular Hertzfeldt's style is. Where Studio Ghibli and Pixar are predicated on character models and production values, he is antithetical and relies on chaos to bleed through the scenery. It would seem disingenuous to have fleshed out landscapes in a short inhabited by stick figures and take away from the grander themes, which comes in Emily's long and winding tale of woe. It may not be the funniest of his shorts, but it does play into the animator's strengths with him focusing on a balance of complexity and innocence in a way that few mainstream or even art house films really attempt. For that, this deserves some extra credit.

World of Tomorrow is probably one of his more accessible shorts considering his fancy for surrealism. It plays out with maturity and reflects a growth as an artist who is capable of turning canvases of paint and stick figures into something far more beautiful and profound. It's a shame that he's not more productive, or he would likely be more popular. For now, we have this beautiful short that reminds us how limited our understanding of animation is by expanding it to the edges of creativity and emotions. It is quite something, and all while being packaged into 16 short minutes.

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