Mad God (2021) – Film Review

Written, directed and produced (among many other credits) by Phil Tippett, the founder and namesake of Tippett Studio, whose varied career in visual effects has spanned more than thirty years and includes two Academy Award wins and six nominations. Mad God, released in 2021, is a rich visual treat for enthusiasts of horror and stop-motion animation alike, serving as a harrowing delve into a post-apocalyptic hellscape that is both unique and disturbing. Harbouring a cinematic allure that is equal parts unsettling and mesmerising, Mad God proves that even in the age of CGI, the art form of stop-motion remains strong, even if the story and characters it’s bringing to life are far from well-developed.

Plot Summary: Equipped with a gas mask and an ageing map, the Assassin, a lone iron-clad humanoid, descends into an underworld of tortured souls, ruined cities and wretched monstrosities on a covert mission to reach the heart of this nightmarish realm of suffering…

First starting work on the project in the late 1980s, shortly after creating effects for RoboCop 2, released in 1990. Mad God has been Tippett’s pet project for over thirty years, despite the filmmaker almost considering abandoning the project when Jurassic Park was released in 1993, as CG effects appeared to make stop-motion a thing of the past. After some urging from those around him, however, Tippett decided to create a Kickstarter campaign that allowed him to complete the project. In the following years, three parts of Mad God were released online, which made up around half of the full eighty-two-minute version that was eventually screened at various film festivals. And whilst this story behind the film’s creation is certainly intriguing, Mad God‘s biggest shortcoming is that it lacks a narrative itself, or at least a coherent one. Instead, the film relies on visual storytelling and world-building as the audience follows the Assassin on his lengthy journey, encountering many distinct creatures, locations and civilisations on a mission that is never disclosed. As such, watching Mad God requires a lot of concentration to get the most out of it, much like how the project was crafted, I suppose.

With no dialogue or characterisation to speak of, Mad God‘s characters hinge entirely on their design. Thankfully, every character/creature that appears throughout the runtime is visibly repulsive, unnerving and eccentric. At the core of Mad God‘s story is a character only known as the Assassin, a silent, gas mask-wearing humanoid who also receives no characterisation, instead functioning as an audience surrogate through Tippett’s fever dream of a post-apocalyptic world. As the film features no dialogue, the central cast, including Alex Cox, Niketa Roman and Satish Ratakonda, only appear in a handful of live-action sequences, which similar to the scenes of stop-motion, are grimy and discomforting whilst relying on visuals over direct storytelling. While these sequences are interesting and count towards what little plot there is, many of these moments also pull you out of the experience and are often plagued by the film’s need to implement oral sounds to ensure the human characters don’t appear mute, meaning noises like “Eh?” and “Hmmm” become rather repetitious.

The cinematography by Chris Morley and Phil Tippett allows for spectacular framing within every scene, lending to the atmosphere and intrigue of each setting, whether its an oxidised factory of greasy machinery or a society of helpless slaves ruled over by an electronic screen that speaks in child-like gibberish. Furthermore, each of the surroundings the Assassin treks across is distinguished by the film’s colour palette, which seamlessly jumps from cold blues to vile greens and blood reds, making the stop-motion appear incredibly cinematic. Interestingly, one scene, which features a mountain of dead soldiers, was actually accomplished by melting thousands of plastic army men together on a wire. This scene took six animators around three years to complete, demonstrating the substantial amount of dedication required to animate even a single scene of Mad God

Through prolonged tracks like Long Way Down and ConveyanceMad God‘s original score by Dan Wool enhances many of the surreal visuals in a relatively nuanced fashion, making for a soundtrack that isn’t all that memorable, but avoids becoming overbearing as to let the visuals speak for themselves. However, the sound design is where the film’s audio truly shines as the countless animalistic growls of the mutated creatures that roam Mad God‘s mystifying world are ghastly and add audible depth to whichever location the Assassin finds himself.

As most would expect from Tippett Studio, the animation itself is smooth yet appropriately unearthly, providing every creature with its own jittery method of walking/crawling that feels remarkably natural. What’s even more impressive is that, according to Tippett, a considerable amount of the animation on Mad God was actually conducted by novice students who wanted to gain some filmmaking experience.

In summary, Mad God will likely be a very divisive film on account of its largely interpretive narrative and absence of well-defined characters. But, these annoyances ultimately don’t matter that much in the grand scheme, as Mad God thrives in what it’s trying to do. Presenting itself as a love letter to stop-motion that could only be realised by a legendary visual effects artist like Phil Tippett. And with stop-motion animation in such short supply nowadays, an outstanding piece of artsy like Mad God will always be a joy to behold, faults or not. Rating: high 7/10.

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Corpse Bride (2005) – Film Review

Tim Burton’s twisted story of a man accidentally marrying a deceased bride could certainly be seen as too dark for an animated family adventure by some, but the film actually blends many of its dark scenes with plenty of heart and humour throughout. Making this stop-motion flick not quite one of the director’s best, but definitely a must-watch for fans of the unique director.

Plot Summary: When a shy groom (Victor Van Dort) practices his wedding vows in the inadvertent presence of a deceased young woman, she rises from her grave assuming he has married her. Before he knows it, ‘Victor’ soon finds himself in the land of the dead, and now must find a way to return to the land of the living before he loses his still-living wife forever…

Alongside the entertaining narrative, throughout the film there are various different musical sequences, which were surprisingly entertaining considering I’m usually not a huge fan of musical numbers in film. But I actually found many of the songs throughout the film actually added to the plot and gave the film another creative element which worked really well when combined with the brilliant original score by Danny Elfman.

Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter portray: ‘Victor’ and his accidental ‘Corpse Bride,’ alongside the supporting cast of Emily Watson and Paul Whitehouse. Who are all pretty great, with the two leads in particular having pretty some great chemistry with each other, which really added to some of the romantic scenes throughout runtime (especially when it comes to an animated film). The cast also features Richard E. Grant, who portrays the villous: ‘Barkis Bittern’ perfectly, coming off as very sly, rude and intelligent from start-to-finish.

The cinematography by Pete Kozachik is pretty effective considering his previous work is usually far from the realm of stop-motion animation, as although there is definitely room for improvement, the cinematography is interesting enough to keep the viewer engaged throughout the film’s story.

Without a doubt, the original score by Danny Elfman is definitely one of the best elements of the film, as well as being one of my favourites for a Tim Burton flick. As while not quite on the level of the original: ‘Batman’ or ‘Edward Scissorhands’ for example, the entire soundtrack still perfectly captures the creepy tone of the film, as well as many of it’s more emotional moments, all adding to both an extremely memorable and beautiful score. Especially the tracks: ‘Main Titles’ and ‘End Credits Pt. 1,’ which are my two personal favourites from the film.

The stop-motion animation throughout the film is simply outstanding, as each character’s unique design influences their movements, with many of the characters having very interesting and over-the-top designs which perfectly fit within the world of a Tim Burton story. The film also has an unexpectedly ranged colour palette, as in addition to the usual dark Burton-esque colours. The film surprisingly also uses a large range of bright greens, purples and reds in a few scenes, which all really help the film stand-out, and give a little more light to many of the miniature sets and various characters.

Overall, while I didn’t expect to enjoy ‘Corpse Bride’ as much as I did, the film’s fantastic stop-motion animation, great humour and emotional scenes all topped with the unique Tim Burton style, I’d say the film is a pretty solid watch aside from the occasional cheesy joke or scene. Final Rating: 8/10.

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ParaNorman (2012) – Film Review

From Lakia animation studios, the production company behind many beautifully-animated stop-motion flicks such as: ‘Coraline,’ ‘The Boxtrolls’ and ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ to name a few, comes another mostly enjoyable creepy family adventure, thanks mostly to some fantastic stop-motion animation as well as it’s great cast. Even if the film may not be as entertaining as some other films from Lakia’s animated line-up.

Plot Summary: Norman Babcock’ is a misunderstood boy who can speak to the dead, but when ‘Norman’s estranged uncle tells him of an important ritual he must perform in order to protect his home town: ‘Blithe Hollow’ from a centuries-old witch’s curse. He must take on ghosts, zombies, and grown-ups in order to stop the curse from destroying everything he’s ever known…

The weakest element of the film for me is unfortunately, the story, as although the idea of having a young boy who can see ghosts is a decent idea in itself, almost serving as ‘The Sixth Sense’ for families in a way. The rest of the narrative never reaches the eerie tone of: ‘Coraline’ or the fun of: ‘Missing Link,’ with the film even attempting to have a few emotional scenes, but most of them fall a little flat, mostly due to never truly having the impact they need. However, the humour throughout the film is mostly decent as whilst not every joke lands, the majority of them do, and the film usually has a range of comedy for all ages, despite a few jokes going on for far too long.

Kodi Smit-McPhee gives a solid performance as ‘Norman Babcock,’ as well as Tucker Albrizzi, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and John Goodman. However, my personal favourites of the cast have to be Anna Kendrick, and Casey Affleck as ‘Courtney’ and ‘Mitch’ without a doubt. As the two of them portray two weak-minded teenagers helping ‘Norman’ on his paranormal adventure, with ‘Courtney’ clearly having an interest in ‘Mitch’ which he is completely oblivious towards.

Tristan Oliver handles the cinematography throughout ‘ParaNorman,’ which is definitely a weaker element of the film, as the cinematography simply backs-up the animation rather than doing anything incredibly interesting with the shots, there still is the occasional pleasing shot, however, and the cinematography does display many of the miniature sets very well.

The original score by Jon Brion is very reminiscent of classic 1980’s horror flicks, which is suitable considering the film’s opening scene has the protagonist: ‘Norman’ watching a classic zombie film, and while the soundtrack isn’t incredibly memorable on itself, it works well enough in the film to increase some of the comedy and atmosphere when it can, with the track: ‘Zombie Attack in the Eighties’ being my personal favourite for this exact reason.

Unsurprisingly, the stop-motion animation is phenomenal throughout the film. As every character and every miniature set looks incredible, having a creepy and exaggerated yet still appealing look. All with smooth motions similar to any other animated film, whether animated through CGI or not. In the few short instances where CGI is used within the film, however, it’s normally used to great effect, usually to simply improve the visuals rather than taking the emphasis away from the hand-crafted animation itself. And in order to generate the film’s 3D effects, the camera was cleverly mounted on a rig, which would take one shot, then slide to a slightly different viewpoint to take another, allowing for more less movement in the figures themselves.

All in all, despite ‘ParaNorman’ not quite managing to craft an incredibly memorable story for the majority of its runtime, I would say I enjoyed myself. As although ‘ParaNorman’ still isn’t my favourite of Lakia’s film catalogue, as I personally feel there isn’t many areas the film overly succeeds in. The film is decently entertaining for the most part. Final Rating: low 7/10.

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