The field of animation is strewn with unfulfilled passion projects that were decades in the (un)making. There’s Richard Williams’s The Thief and the Cobbler (made over 29 years, begun in 1964 and ultimately taken from him in 1992 for a hideously compromised 1993 release), Paul Grimault’s The King and the Mockingbird (32-year production, started in 1948 and finally completed as intended in 1980), and Yuri Norstein’s The Overcoat (41 years and counting, started in 1981 and still going — hang in there, Yuri). Rare and delightful is it that a long-gestating animated project actually comes to term, but just that has now happened with Phil Tippett’s Mad God. The visual effects guru (you know his work from Star Wars, RoboCop, Jurassic Park, and more) originally started production on the stop-motion film in 1990. After a several-decade hiatus, many other stops and starts, and a successful Kickstarter campaign, he was finally able to complete it last year. It was worth the wait.
Unfolding entirely without spoken dialogue, Mad God features a highly ambiguous, more-than-a-little-bit allegorical narrative in which a gas-masked figure whom reference materials identify as “The Assassin” traverses deeper and deeper into a hellish landscape, intending to deliver a suitcase bomb to … somewhere. He’s apparently an agent in enemy territory, but this seems less a world wracked by war than it does a world defined by war, in which there may or may not be who knows how many “sides” but the point is the perpetual, ugly conflict itself. The longer it goes along, the farther away the initial, simple goal of “deliver the bomb” gets, as the film indulges in increasingly nightmarish imagery that’s both nauseating in its viciousness and impressive in its creativity.
My earlier gestation/birth metaphor may be cliche, but it’s almost harrowingly apropos for a film as viscerally physical as this. Stop motion, a form built around fabricating little worlds and then photographing them one frame at an agonizing time, is generally thought of in terms of object-oriented artifice — clay, cloth, metal, dolls, and the like. I not only have never seen a stop-motion film that’s so biological, but I really couldn’t even conceive that such a film was possible. The creatures that populate this world — some of them vaguely human-like but many of them bestial assemblages of eyes, wings, tails, mouths, and … other things — drool, weep, bleed, ooze, gnash, glisten, and expectorate all manner of liquids and viscera. A steamroller crushes hapless mummy-like drones who burst wetly as they’re flattened. An enormous infantile tyrant shits liquid into the even larger machine it’s strapped into. A character undergoes a torturous surgery in which their body is entirely evacuated (and it turns out they have more than just organs inside). The film feels “alive,” and in Tippett’s vision, living things are just awaiting a gruesome death.
All of this may sound like immature heavy-metal-album-cover posturing, but Tippett is drawing on a dizzying array of inspirations for a project which at its barbed-wire-wrapped heart is about the horror of dehumanization in a simple, elemental manner. It’s Bosch by way of artists like Francis Bacon, Zdzisław Beksiński, and H.R. Giger. This is all the more impressive given that a great deal of Mad God‘s world was created with found objects — things Tippett sourced from around the house or repurposed from earlier projects. When interviewed, he cites the Surrealist assemblage of Joseph Cornell as an influence. The macabre is hardly unfamiliar territory for stop motion; Tippett operates in a register familiar to appreciates of filmmakers like Henry Selick, Paul Berry, and the Brothers Quay. But besides his uniquely grotesque sensibility, he also introduces an astonishing sense of scale to his animation. It is sometimes difficult to believe you are looking at dioramas and puppets. The many buildings, landscapes, and terrifying leviathans are convincingly monumental, enhancing the all-pervasive sense of foreboding. The clever framing and especially the intricate soundscape aid in this effect. This is a film of tiny beings making echoes that become whispers against a void.
Mad God may frustrate those seeking a conventional plot or grow repetitive in its unchanging rhythms. But it is singular in its vision, in a way few films can accurately be called so. And given its protracted production history, that it exists at all feels miraculous. Though given its subject matter, that makes for a very dark miracle indeed.
Mad God opens in select theaters June 10 and will be available to stream on Shudder starting June 16.