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When animator Don Hertzfeldt‘s outrageously funny (and Oscar-nominated) short Rejected made the rounds in 2001, it contained glimpses of a sensibility as inclined toward formal experimentation as Surrealist sight gags. But though his search for laughs sometimes led the filmmaker to dwell on his characters’ fear of annihilation, the movie never suggested Hertzfeldt was interested in — much less that he’d be suited to — more than comedy.
With his debut feature It’s Such a Beautiful Day, Hertzfeldt proves he can do much more with his little hand-drawn stick figures than make people laugh. A truly moving meditation on identity, family and (as the title of his previous short immodestly put it) the meaning of life, Hertzfeldt’s magnum opus is more cosmically satisfying than The Tree of Life. Though it will never compete with Terrence Malick‘s grandiose tone poem at the box office, the film should attract the attention of moviegoers far beyond the animator’s fervent fan base — establishing him as a serious artist working in a medium no one else would think to take seriously.
Laboring for years as a one-man crew, the director has shown the film’s three chapters on the festival circuit as each was completed. The story, in which a man named Bill is diagnosed with an unspecified brain disorder that erodes his ability to make sense of the world, lends itself to a structure in which each section grows more technically adventurous than the last. In the first, Hertzfeldt masks off irregular areas of the frame to show overlapping strands of perception and memory; by the final act, he’s using in-camera special effects in dazzling ways, imagining the ends of worlds and things to come. His characters are still pen-and-ink stick figures wobbling across a plain white background, but actual photographed objects sometimes intrude, and some late scenes integrate manipulated live-action footage.
Narrating the story himself, Hertzfeldt has a worried-sounding voice, unpolished but not amateurish, that perfectly suits his material. Bill’s struggles can be blackly funny at times — and his failing perceptual abilities allow for the occasional comic hallucination — but the narrator’s earnest tone keeps viewers from laughing at him. Losing memories and failing to recognize those closest to him transforms Bill into the ultimate Everyman, but the movie treats him as an individual whose fate is worth caring about.
Echoes of Hertzfeldt’s early work appear here (a scene involving a leafblower reminds us of his knack for patience-testing gags), but the film never relies on the things that made Rejected a cult classic. Where he once used grandly dramatic classical music as funny counterpoint for the modesty of line-drawn characters, the sweeping Rachmaninoff and Strauss heard here feels entirely appropriate: Bill’s struggle to hold onto his mind and his life deserves it.
Production Company: Bitter Films
Director-Screenwriter-Producer-Director of Photography: Don Hertzfeldt
Editor: Brian Hamblin
No rating, 70 minutes
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