The fact that Kaufman’s Anomalisa is an animated movie should neither dissuade you from watching it nor should it persuade you to do it with your kids. Far from the watered-down fairy tales often associated with this genre, this Academy Award-nominated stop-motion comedy-drama poses a critique to our modern lifestyle, delves into a complex psychiatric disorder, and features what is probably the most realistic sex scene in film history.
When to Use Animation
Actually, Anomalisa is successful not despite but largely because of its medium. When Akiyuki Nosaka was offered film adaptations of his WW2 short story Grave of the Fireflies, he repeatedly declined because “it was impossible to recreate the barren, scorched earth [of Japan at the time].” However, Isao Takahata’s stripped-to-the-bone animated version managed to capture this backdrop in one of the most harrowing, heart-rendering depictions of war on the big screen. Anomalisa, too, takes advantage of the expressiveness of its format to create the setting. With its stormy weather, raindrops sticking to the window and a chiaroscuro introducing main character Michael Stone, the first scene on the plane perfectly sets the bleak tone of this slightly twisted movie.
At the same time, we still identify our own world in the film the moment Michael lands in Cincinnati. We buy its realism because of the details in the characters’ interactions, of how socially-awkward situations are exploited for comedic effect, like when the bellboy at the hotel where Michael is staying draws out the conversation with until he’s given a tip. Things feel every bit as real as in any movie with actors in the flesh.
Why Does Anomalisa Use One Male Voice for Almost All Characters?
Expressive yet realistic, there’s also something unusually original in Anomalisa you won’t find in any other film. As a way to emphasize a slanted point of view—hint: pay attention to the name of the hotel—most characters are played by a single voice actor: Tom Noonan. This resource can be disorienting, as with the overlapping voices that are barely audible in the opening. Still, there is some very compelling dialogue, particularly in the lines of the motormouth taxi driver who painfully insists on making conversation with Michael, who, by the way, has his own voice.
It’s not like I enjoyed absolutely everything about the movie, though. Despite the vocal feats of Tom Noonan, who plays all characters but two, the pace can be quite slow at the beginning. But I think there’s a reason for this that can be savored after the end of the movie, like the umami aftertaste of miso.
Kaufman plays with the tempo to signal Michael’s internal moods. When he arrives at the hotel before his presentation on customer support, in which he’ll essentially tell people how to put on a specific face or voice, everything and everyone is one bottomless ocean of monotony. (Using puppets with visible seams on their interchangeable faces really drives this point home.) Then an anomaly appears in Michael’s world. When he comes back from buying a Japanese antique doll for his son at a “toy” store, Michael hears a female voice (the third and final voice in the cast) that stands out from all the rest. From here on, the pace picks up, which may or may not lead to the sex scene alluded to in the first paragraph.
What Does Anomalisa Mean?
There was another thing I initially disliked about the film. At one point, we hear Lisa say she’s looked up “Anomalisa” in her Japanese dictionary and that it means “Goddess of Heaven.” The actual Japanese phrase for Goddess of Heaven is 天国の女神 (Tengoku no Megami) and there is only a very tenuous connection between the movie title and天照大神 (Amaterasu Oomikami) or “Sun Goddess.” This can be a bit disconcerting for someone who is proficient in Japanese—and the film generally has lower ratings on Japanese websites. But I don’t think this is just an oversight or Kaufman making light of Japanese culture. Just like the pace, this could be yet another clue to understanding the plot—but don’t worry, no spoilers.
So, Should You Watch Anomalisa?
Thanks to all these layers of complexity, even hard-core movie buffs are in for a treat. With a cast of three vocal actors playing all the characters and its bared puppet seams, mouth marks and joint-and-socket skeletons, Anomalisa will leave even the most sophisticated viewers puzzling over the exposed gears of movie-making and human psychology.