Taylor Jessen takes a look at the anime feature that got away named My Life As McDull.
Weve all got want lists of animated features we wish were available on DVD. They never do any good, even the online petitions with 2000 people demanding, I say, demanding action. But they remind us of our priorities. My list, hopeless as it is, includes Twice Upon a Time, Animalympics and A Boy Named Charlie Brown. In fact all those titles exist on home video; it just takes work to find them, stranded as they are in an out-of-print limbo of clamshell videotapes or laserdiscs back in the geological strata of 1980s consumer video.
Theres one animated movie of more recent vintage that, if more people knew about it, theyd be working like hell to score a copy of: My Life As McDull, a 2001 feature that screened in Los Angeles last month as part of a continuing series at Walt Disney Concert Halls REDCAT theater.
There is no greater way to sucker-punch an audience than to look like a childrens film when you are actually an existential, animated cri de coeur with plushies.
I think Jules Feiffer made a similar discovery several years ago in another medium when he wrote The Man in the Ceiling. The hero of Feiffers book is a young cartoonist in his early tweens, and the story concerns all the pressures he must endure the popular friend with story ideas, the younger sister with temper tantrums, the mother who makes a living as a graphic artist, the father who thinks art isnt real work, and the playwright uncle with nothing but flops under his belt whose latest play becomes the unexpected potential hit that turns the household upside-down.
In short, its about art and the terrible, awful process of making it, and in the end this is a book about failure. It looks and acts like a novella for children, but dont be fooled, because for all artists, and for that matter anyone whos ever tried to accomplish anything great, this is a heartbreaker full of hope but missing the happy ending or easy answers.
Instead of going to see Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit on opening night last month, I took a chance on a special screening of My Life as McDull. McDull is based on a popular comic by Alice Mak and was directed by Toe Yuen, a former comics magazine editor and toy designer. At first blush, this Hong Kong-produced traditionally-animated feature is a kid-vid story of a pig and his mother. In fact it may look family-friendly, but this is actually an incredibly efficient vehicle for breaking your grownup heart. The unprepared viewer may be so completely bamboozled by the bright colors, cute animals and charming watercolor textures that he will hardly notice his urge to weep when the film takes its amazing third-act turn.
McDull is a pig, plump and plush with an orange-ribbed eye, somewhat witless and sickly but with a great lazy parenthesis of a smile. He lives in the endless Hong Kong sprawl with his mother. Mama at home is a loving single mom with great expectations for her son, whereas at work shes a grinning Martha Stewart-esque harpy with her own cooking show and a get-ahead attitude that brooks no wimp-outs. In one of the films funniest gags McDull imagines Mama as the heroine of her own video game, jumping over cars in the street, racing the other moms to the grocery checkout, and finally defeating the evil boss-like Man With Briefcase for 10,000 points.
The presence of an adult narrator quickly establishes that this is a reminiscence by an older McDull whos both sadder and wiser, although just how sad isnt apparent right away. The hints start to fly in the middle of the film when McDull gets sick, and to get him to take his medicine, Mama promises that theyll take a holiday in the Maldives when he gets well. (McDull has been pining for this resort republic thanks to commercials on TV.) When he does recover, Mama hedges, saying she meant, Well go when I get rich.
Eventually she relents and says shell book a flight. One trip to an automated travel reservation center later, the screen displays a cash sum so horrifying that Mama has no choice but to pull a fast one on her son. As they board a tram we see, but McDull doesnt, that the handwritten Maldives sign on the wall next to the entrance was only taped there very recently. All Mama could afford was a trip from one island in the Kowloon peninsula to the next but still McDulls imagination gladly turns endless cityscapes into teeming jungles, and industrial plazas into exotic hotels surrounded by palm trees.
In the last act, McDull suddenly discovers his lifes goal when he watches a TV report on a local girl whos won a gold medal for windsurfing. McDull decides hes going to seek out the girls trainer and be his next student. The trainer, though, has other plans; hed like to turn McDull into a champion bun snatcher. The movie suddenly appropriates black-and-white stock footage of real bun-snatching events from decades past, where 60-foot cone-shaped bun towers were covered with round loaves and children climbed as high as they could trying to pry out that championship bun stuck to the top. The sport was outlawed when a tower collapsed in 1978, but the trainer wants McDull to become so adept that the Olympic committee will have no choice but to include it in official competition.
The plot that follows could have been turgidly inspirational, but instead Yuen goes for goofy and understated surrealism. Its all very sweet, and if you were in the theater at this point youd probably wish youd brought your eight-year-old nephew. Then Yuen drops his bombshell. Near the end of the movie he interrupts what was a steady progression of pastels and watercolor animation to unspool a self-contained digression in black ink on creamy paper.
Its a yarn about how he always loved the smell of turkey, but never actually got to eat any because Mama never happened to buy one until that certain holiday season when she finally broke down and bought a bird for roasting. The smell and the taste brought McDull a kind of ineffable joy. And then the leftovers started. Their house turned to turkey hell as Mama made the poor creature last for six months. Thats three times as long, he ruefully notes, as the life of the turkey. Its a droll enough shaggy-dog story, and Yuen goes on to say he gained a sort of existentialist epiphany from the whole episode that henceforth he always associated with the smell of turkey.
He caps the digression with an unexpectedly bittersweet epilogue: I smelled that smell again at my wedding. And at my mothers cremation.
The film ends in live action, with our human narrator rushing down a busy thoroughfare in a black-and-white striped swimsuit to the beach he never reached as a child. Finally he stands ankle-deep in the surf. Hes made it. Except he hasnt, really his life is a shambles, and he admits as much in voiceover, apologizing to his mother for his failure. He tries to think of a moral for the story weve just seen and, unable to think of one, dives in and starts swimming.
Hell of an epiphany, especially if and baby, this applied to everybody at that REDCAT screening, I guarantee it youre an artist, an artist-to-be, or a complete washout trying to Do Something, Make Something, or Be Someone with a legacy to be proud of.
This film hurts but good, and you and I need to get together and see it with a group of friends who are available afterwards for some serious deep hugs. Thats the problem; this feature, which won the Grand Prix at Annecy in 2003, was at one time available in at least two DVD packages, one French and one Cantonese. The French version has no English subtitles. The Hong Kong version is region-free and includes English/Chinese subtitles, but its out of print, and after going through an out-of-stock cavalcade of online hell all I can say is good luck finding it.
You shouldnt need good luck. You should need three minutes to get it from the same retailer who sold you the complete Ghibli catalogue from Buena Vista Home Video.
My Life as McDull has never been released in the United States, in theaters or elsewhere. Its sad enough that so many missed it, but sadder still that only a few hundred people even know they missed it. My thanks to Berenice Reynaud, CalArts co-curator of film at REDCAT, for enlightening my fellow audience members and me. Were limited to repertory screenings like this if were ever going to see McDull in public, because four years after its initial release, its too late for it to get theatrical distribution. But its never too late for it to exist on DVD.
Please, someone in North America with a home video shingle do the obvious! If theres an audience for a subtitled Millennium Actress in this country, theres gotta be an audience for My Life As McDull. And make that a two-disc gift set, please McDull on disc one and the 2004 sequel, McDull, Prince de la Bun, on disc two.
Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show complete with the Superheroes epilogue, My Life As McDull is yet another tale of the spark of eccentricity snuffed by intolerance, indifference, or most insidious of all the slow fade-to-black of growing up.
Taylor Jessen is a writer living in Burbank. He is seeking a grant to start a website where people can upload sound samples and solicit help getting artist and title information for songs they cant identify, starting with this one.