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Stopmotion Review: Art is Murder in Grim Ode to Handcrafted Animation

Robert Morgan fuses grisly stop-motion puppetry with live-action psychological horror in Stopmotion, his feature-length debut.

Stop-motion animation is superbly suited for horror, and it shows with the strong genre showings we’ve seen over the years. From family fare such as The Nightmare before Christmas to Phil Tippet’s oddball passion piece Mad God. Why? Because there’s something unsettling about the movement. Graceful yet ”missing” something that feels unnerving.

Perhaps it’s animating something physical, but inanimate. There’s folklore and stories of such things over the centuries, and if there’s something Stopmotion grasps especially strongly about the medium, it’s how beautifully macabre the idea of life coming from dead things is.

Stopmotion says a lot about the commitment to the medium of stop-motion animation, but it’s just as effective as an aggravated take on the creative process and living up to legacies. It’s little surprise how literally it takes its tortured artist motif by the film’s end as reality and the art form become increasingly and horrifyingly intertwined.

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Credit: IFC Films

Ella Blake (played by The Nightingale’s Aisling Franciosi) is a stop-motion animator who is effectively under the thumb of her famous stop-motion animator mother. Ella has ideas and dreams of her own, but her mother douses her creative flame by using Ella’s hands to finish what looks like her final film. Ella’s mother is in poor health, and her hands aren’t what they once were, so we see the first instance of Ella herself being puppeteered throughout her life.

There’s some rebellion from Ella, despite her desperation for her mother’s approval, and that ultimately leads to some guilt when her mother falls gravely ill, leading Ella to vow to finish her mother’s work in the isolation of a bare and crumbling apartment.

But the weight of finishing her mother’s legacy for her begins to show as the temptation to make something of her own grows. A strangely keen girl who seemingly lives in the apartment block shows up and gradually shifts Ella’s vision into new and disturbing shapes. If you find the stubborn pursuit of realism over fantasy in media a bit disgusting, then Morgan won’t do your stomach any favors, albeit for a quite different reason I won’t disclose here.

But I can say that a large part of the unpleasantness is the double dip of the stop-motion animation and the distinct sounds used around them. The sound design is so admirably unpleasant that it draws you into the stop-motion scenes. There are a lot of squishy, squelchy noises that are married to appropriately grim scenes in Stopmotion. What’s interesting is how that unpleasantness amps up as the film goes on, and begins to bleed into reality for Ella.

At the start, there is a clear distinction between the world of stop-motion animation and Ella’s waking life. Slowly, but surely, her obsession with her work begins to draw the two together, creating some truly nightmarish crossovers of live-action and stop-motion that appear to be manifesting some kind of fever dream. I was initially unsure of how they would integrate, but Morgan drags the viewer deeper into the clay hole as the film unfurls.

It could easily have been a jarring experience if mishandled, but Morgan’s background in stop-motion clearly gives him an understanding of where and how to blur the lines effectively. How Ella’s work becomes more raw and feral contributes significantly to the crossover of worlds. Morgan said to me in an interview that there’s something ritualistic about stop-motion puppeteering, and Ella’s film is a clear indicator of that mindset, as it draws more and more from our world to feed its own creation.

Of course, this only works with an effective conduit, and Aisling Franciosi is exactly that. As with her sublime turn in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, Franciosi portrays a flawed character you can feel empathy for as much as disgust. Ella feels so out of control of her own power and creativity and Franciosi makes that struggle utterly believable as Ella devoutly follows her vision to its brutal conclusion.

Stopmotion is a smart blend of stop-motion and live-action horror. Aisling Franciosi pulls the two worlds together with a performance fuelled by tragedy and rebellion. Robert Morgan’s animated sequences fulfill their uncanny promise by summoning an almost otherworldly horror union of art and anguish.

Score: 8/10

As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 8 equates to ”Great”. While there are a few minor issues, this score means that the art succeeds at its goal and leaves a memorable impact.

Stopmotion is in theaters on February 23, 2024.

Disclosure: ComingSoon received a screener for Stopmotion review.

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