Anomalisa is a tale so emotionally surreal that it fits snugly into the medium of stop-motion animation. Though the story itself is rather self-contained considering most of its tale takes place within a hotel, the experimentation of the medium allows for some truly trippy moments of impaired perceptions as well as some amazing displays of believable puppetry. It’s a strange, sad, and deeply poignant narrative not as common for a stop-motion production.
The films follows middle-aged customer-service guru Michael Stone (David Thewlis), venturing to a convention to promote his latest book. Stone is depressed for a very odd affliction he refuses to tell anyone; everyone he meets has the same face and voice of a man. His wife, his child, the stranger sitting next to him on the airplane; all of them look and sound alike. Michael tries to live with it but he’s clearly losing his mind, made evident by the vivid and terrifying nightmares he’s been having, as well as his rocky relationships with both his wife and past lovers.
But then something miraculous happens when he arrives at the hotel. He overhears a voice; a distincly female voice with a beautiful face to boot. This woman is Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and she’s a fan of his work. Attending the conference with her best friend, Lisa soon meets Michael and is smitten quickly. All that Michael can think of at this moment is that he needs this woman in his life in some way, be it emotional or physical.
Given that the film is written and co-directed by Charlie Kaufman, with a screenwriting history that includes such psychological trips of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there’s some truly sad and powerful places this film takes the audience. Michael’s disorder plays beautifully on a relatable level of loneliness the can be felt as the years go on and everything starts to look mundane. Michael’s somber approach to the world he doesn’t understand anymore has a moving level to seem so hopeless for the man who seeks happiness and realizes it’ll never come to be. There’s a moment where he thinks he may just find a way out but makes the painful discovery that trying to seek change only breeds a dispair that there is no magical hero present to whisk us away. We’d like to think there is and perhaps Michael is so desperate he wills it into his life, if only for a night.
Despite most of the film taking place in a hotel as though it were better built for a stage play, there’s some brilliant usage of stop-motion. There’s an embracement of the flaws in how the lines between the top and bottom of the head for the models are left in the film. Usually, these lines are taken out in post, but Anomalisa doesn’t merely leave them in but uses the odd sight to great effect in one frightening dream sequence. The attention to detail is astounding as even the most simple actions of smoking a cigarette or having a drink come off so natural its eerie. This care with the animation makes the quintessential moment of Michael and Lisa becoming intimate far more passionate than silly. No Team America silliness here.
Anomalisa comes from a very personal place that most animated films only skim across when addressing mental and social blockage. For anyone who has ever been on a business trip where the world feels so empty, where everyone and everything brings little joy, Michael will carry a touchingly tragic appeal. His search for something original and pure is a very human adventure that brings out the greatest temptations and forlorn realizations of the wilting world around the married man. This is unlike any animated film I’ve seen before and I can only hope there are more this daring in the future.