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“Stopmotion” Review: IFC’s Partially Animated Creepshow Injects Artistry into Reality

“Aisling Franciosi Portrays a Director’s Alter Ego Struggling in Robert Morgan’s Striking but Uneven Debut Feature”

Stopmotion

“Robert Morgan, a Renowned English Animator, Delivers a Singular, Surreal Experience with ‘Stopmotion'”

“Stopmotion” tells a tale reminiscent of “Repulsion,” following a young woman’s descent into madness, portrayed by Aisling Franciosi of “The Nightingale” fame. The film captivates with its vivid and escalating bursts of grotesque imagination. However, it falters when it comes to depicting the real-world consequences of these intrusions. While masterful at creating nightmares, director Robert Morgan and co-writer Robin King struggle with character actions, psychology, and dialogue outside the protagonist’s fevered psyche.

At its core, “Stopmotion” explores the horror trope of the cursed creation turning against its creator. Fictive animator Suzanne Blake, portrayed by Stella Gonet, faces this fate from the film’s onset. Afflicted by arthritis, possibly worsened by her lifework of animating deceased subjects, she struggles to move her arms and hands.

Consequently, most of the labor falls on Suzanne’s daughter, Ella (portrayed by Franciosi), whom she has instructed in all her techniques. However, Suzanne’s teaching style resembles more of a tyrannical master than a supportive mentor, constantly criticizing and belittling her apprentice. She has instilled in her daughter the crippling belief that Ella lacks any artistic talent and is only useful when given explicit instructions.

“All I want is to finish this film before I die,” laments the mother, as both she and Ella toil away on her anticipated cyclops-themed swan song. However, a stroke lands her in the hospital instead. Instead of continuing with her mother’s project, Ella decides to pursue something of her own. She moves into a new apartment/studio for this purpose and unexpectedly finds inspiration in a mysterious little girl next door (played by Caoilinn Springall).

This nameless child insinuates herself into Ella’s life, gradually feeding her ideas about the “Ash Man,” which becomes the central threat driving a new stop-motion project they embark on together. As the young neighbor seems less than entirely “real,” so too does this phantom figure become increasingly tangible — at least to a terrified Ella — as they spend more time visualizing him through clay models and photography.

Franciosi adeptly portrays our protagonist’s mental decline, portraying her as alternately prickly, needy, and defensive, ultimately culminating in external violence and Cronenbergian body horror. However, the script and direction fall short in contextualizing her collapse as effectively as they bring to life the eerie visions (and sounds) that contribute to it.

Despite the somewhat exaggerated cruelty of her mother, there is no indication that anyone among Ella’s barely sketched peer friends or teachers (who are all also involved in animation, it seems) has ever noticed anything “off” about her. She maintains a seemingly normal relationship with her boyfriend, Tom York, but he is so blandly underdeveloped that he only serves to further obscure our perception of her. The only other notable character is his sister, portrayed as a waspish, back-stabbing type.

“Stopmotion” struggles to establish a clear portrayal of the world outside Ella’s headspace, leaving the audience uncertain about whether it even wants to delve into that realm. While the film immerses itself in Ella’s paranoid, fantasy-prone zone, it also attempts to incorporate elements of everyday reality without fully grounding them in naturalistic actions and plausible personalities. As a result, while the fantastical elements boast richness in design and mood, they lack a palpable sense of threat because ordinary life and sanity are never convincingly portrayed as imperiled.

The film’s texture is visually striking but emotionally hollow. In addition to the director’s eerie animations, there are effective contributions from the production designer, costume designer, hair and makeup artists, and creature effects specialist. However, the film falls short in delivering the routine elements necessary for a relatively conventional feature-length narrative. While some films have successfully waived these requirements, such as Phil Tippett’s “Mad God” and the Chilean film “The Wolf House,” which sustain disturbing visions while remaining abstract in terms of plot cohesion and character depth.

One can’t help but wish that “Stopmotion” had taken a more ambitious conceptual leap, considering its considerable imaginative style and technique. Unfortunately, the film’s potential is somewhat constrained by its half-hearted adherence to thriller conventions and its struggles to portray its characters as believable individuals in underdeveloped roles.

However, where the film does succeed is in its atmospheric qualities, largely due to the contributions of composer Lola de la Mata and sound designer Ben Baird. Despite its shortcomings, Robert Morgan demonstrates his talent for the extraordinary, with the film stumbling only when it attempts to navigate the realm of the ordinary.

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