Average audiences may not recognize Phil Tippett by name, but those who do will praise him as among the leading creature effects masters of the last fifty years. Perhaps most famous for his work on Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993), he was brought to animate the dinosaurs when they were intended to be partially realized via stop motion. At the suggestion of Industrial Light and Magic, the dinosaurs would be partially animated via CGI, yet they kept Tippett, already celebrated for the nuance and high quality of his work from Prehistoric Beast (1985), to "storyboard" animations for reference. His work, before and after, has been celebrated by other filmmakers and cinephiles, not only for his work with others but his grotesque, macabre solo efforts. His decades-spanning career creating some of the very best creatures in contemporary genre cinema, mixed with his own grand imagination, has culminated with the long-anticipated release of Mad God, his crowd-funded debut feature animated dark fantasy horror film that is not only the best horror film of the year, but also the year's best film of any genre.
Mad God does not have a typical plot, eschewing conventional narrative favoring exquisite showcases of an imaginatively constructed and realized world and its incalculable nightmares. Moreso, it acts as a travelogue, guided by a nameless assassin as he descends further and further into a decaying world, designed at times to evoke a giant corpse, filled with hulking monsters, soulless husks, and cyborg creatures who may or may not answer to unseen masters. Each forward progression acts almost as a formality, a barebones narrative that connects set pieces, encounters, and worlds to form a vision of a putrid, fecal encased world. In its way, it cannot help but evoke similarly engrossing and immersive dark fantasy films, such as The Dark Crystal (Jim Henson, 1982) or Son of the White Mare (Marcell Jankovics, 1981).
Told almost entirely without dialogue, and what little exists is untranslated nonsense, Tippett creates and develops these environments, populated with all manner of creatures, with expansive, complexly executed tableaus that overflow with attention to detail and atmosphere. While primarily functioning as a mood piece to showcase Tippett's grotesque and wild aesthetic, its symbolism has depth to be gleaned. The reoccurring motif of towers, of industrialization, of lives lived to be destroyed at the whims of a mostly unseen upper class, and the apathy of nature and the cosmos in its infinite grandeur and terror all relay a paradoxical, profoundly spiritual collection of stories. This is perhaps best represented by the film's opening, which opens on an extreme wide shot of the tower of Babel, culminating in its destruction. This opening suggests that the subsequent film is, in part, a depiction of a world abandoned by God to its whims and vices, manifested by the dangerous, mechanized world that exists to perpetuate itself at the cost of life.
The film's aesthetic is contradictory, at once both immensely charming and repulsive. Repulsive because it is ultimately an uncanny portrait of a diseased, dilapidated world filled to the brim with mangled somatic imagery, from waste to corrupted bodies filled with metal and deformed by cruelty. Yet charming because of the implicit appeal of stop motion puppetry. Every set, character, location, and creature is made tenderly with great care and thought by the many animators working on this project. Dan Wool's musical compositions match its evocative, haunting qualities that further articulate the despair and gloom of the entire production. Above all else, however, is the incredible mastery on display by Tippett himself, whose idiosyncrasies characterize every aspect of the film's world and sensibilities. His visual compositions, art direction, and creative vision are so beautiful in their horror that they create a hypnotic pull into his world, one in which you might desire to look away but cannot force your gaze away from the screen.
Tippett infuses an evident love of cinema in this film that further adds to the film's charms. References to Stanley Kubrick and Ray Harryhausen abound, from stainless black monoliths to models of Harryhausen's creatures hide tucked away within the film's mise-en-scene. In-kind, Tippett shows an absolute joy at showing the world he has created, ravishingly showing as much of the world for as long as he can, showing each fantastical atrocity in its whole majesty, allowing us to see just enough of these creatures and world to understand their mechanics and placements within the film's cosmology. It unintentionally reminded me of Harryhausen's unrealized passion project Evolution, inspired by the similarly immersive Bill Roberts and Paul Satterfield directed Fantasia (1940) segment Rite of Spring. Like Rite of Spring, that unrealized masterwork would have acted as an all-encompassing representation of monstrous life of creatures that increasingly provoke our imaginations. Tippett has evoked these works through his vision's sheer ambition, and I am eternally grateful he had the opportunity to realize this immaculate vision.
A grotesque, vile travelogue through a decaying world of cosmically scaled body horror and dystopian aesthetics, Phil Tippett's Mad God is a singular, uncompromising vision that is genuinely nightmarish. A cataclysmic cinematic event that has seldom been rivaled, it stands as an accomplishment of an increasingly anachronistic mode of animation, one in which sensuous, tactile textures mark human involvement, a heightened aesthetic wherein we know what we see is impossible, and yet can almost feel as though we can touch it. If you pair this with La Casa Lobo (Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña, 2018), S He (Shengwei Zhou, 2018), or The Tragedy of Man (Marcell Jankovics, 2011), you can have a unique, depressing time seeing what animation can be like outside of the American/Japanese big studio paradigm.
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