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Review: ‘The Girl Without Hands’ and ‘My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea’

Two recent GKIDS releases, both U.S. produced, show how 2D animated features are not just alive, but thriving.

‘The Girl Without Hands.’ All images courtesy of GKIDS.

We shall probably never see its likes again.

By “its” I mean the US-produced full-length, classically animated feature film. Disney’s The Princess and the Frog was more an exercise in nostalgia than a 2D rebirth; up and down the line, it’s all CGI, CGI, CGI*…Interestingly though, 2D keeps working its way in through the cracks, mostly in those films’ closing credits where 2D versions of their characters gambol among the above-the-line creatives, or in Kung Fu Panda’s flashbacks and in Moana, Maui’s tattooed alter-ego (who gets so much screen time he becomes a character in his own right).

Fortunately, full-length 2D animated features live on, and in fact thrive. You have to be a bit of a treasure hunter to come across the stuff, but it’s out there for sure, thanks to overseas studios where CGI hasn’t taken over, and independent domestic creators whose films bear the stamp of their creators’ idiosyncratic personalities.

‘The Girl Without Hands.’

GKIDS continues its campaign to bring envelope-pushing foreign animation to the U.S. with their latest acquisition, Sébastien Laudenbach’s The Girl Without Hands.

Don’t expect anything polished or looking like traditional animation in Hands. Based on a rather grim Brothers Grimm story (one thing this film is not is a “fairy tale” -- leave your daughters at home with a Frozen DVD) it begins with a greedy miller who sells his daughter, sans hands to a shape-shifting devil in exchange for fabulous wealth. (Although they couldn’t be more dissimilar, somehow, I’m reminded of the Futurama episode where Fry and the Robot Devil swap hands.)

Girl Without Hands is animated in an impressionistic art style with loose brushstrokes that often mutate and reform. Simple swatches of color appear and vanish behind these loosely sketched, floating in space outline-only characters. It’s an organic, rather than literal visual style.

‘The Girl Without Hands.’

Laudenbach originally planned what he described in the film’s publicity materials as a “classic production.” It was a goal that had to be abandoned, like so many other ambitious projects, when the money simply wasn’t there. “The film was painted on paper…in a more or less improvised manner much as a jazz musician would do on a canvas.”  He goes on to say the film “offers an image that is not finite. Or, to put it another way, that is in-finite.” A bit esoteric a description perhaps, but by “in-finite” he means unpolished, loose and miles from fully animated. He goes onto say “this infinity opens up the imagination for the viewer, whose brain, in withdrawal, must work to fill in the gaps,” It’s a sentiment reminiscent of what I’ve said about special effects in the sci-fi and fantasy movies from the pre-digital era of handcrafted effects work: back then the viewer had to employ their own imagination to believe in the occasionally tacky onscreen “movie magic” in order to bring it fully to life. It’s not a knock against contemporary, mind-blowing and fully synthesized digital effects, but when viewing them, all one has to do is lie back and let the drop-dead virtual realism wash over (or away?) their imagination. [Cranky old geezer: “These kids today have it way too easy. In my day, we had to settle for a toy rocketship on a string with a sparkler shoved up its butt to make it fly…where’d I leave my goddamn social security check?”]

Earlier this year another GKIDS release told its story in a similar loosey-goosey animation style. The characters in My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea are drawn in thicker, solid and almost crayon-y lines, but like the ones in Girl Without Hands, their colors and backgrounds often take on a life of their own, a mix of drawings, paintings and collages.

‘My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea.’

The film is the work of the prolific graphic novelist and cartoonist Dash Shaw, a member of New York’s alternative comics scene. (The film’s closing credits gives thanks to cartooning celebrities Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware and Gary Panter.) Shaw explained the film’s style in its production notes: “The way I color, for instance, would be considered ‘off-model’ for most animations, but since animation is time-based, and the images are flying past you, you can follow the story and characters even as the colors change or are unaligned like how they are in my comics” -- or like in The Girl Without Hands.

Quite a few plot elements, genres and visual homages mix freely and comfortably in High School. The film begins in a secondary education setting (complete with school politics and cliques) that becomes a disaster movie when a cover-up sends the shoddy titular structure into the ocean. Now its characters, whose deadpan conversations would be right at home in a Wes Anderson movie (“I want to edit a whole line of books with matching spines so they look good on a shelf together”) must work their way floor by floor to roof and rescue, a la The Poseidon Adventure’s survivors. One floor has become a mini-Lord of the Flies, decorated with skulls on sticks and ruled over by the school’s alpha jock; an image of students falling through space evokes memories of the unfortunate Kryptonians in the original Superman movie when their planet goes ka-blooey, and at film’s end we see the survivors dancing Peanuts Christmas special-style.

‘My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea.’

Shaw named High School’s central character after himself, but left voicing duties to Wes Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman (which might partly explain the film’s Anderson-ish dialog). Other voices were provided by Lena Dunham, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph and Susan Sarandon as the mysterious Lunch Lady Elaine, who turns out to be far more than your average lunch lady.

Apart from their not entirely dissimilar art styles, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea bears one other similarity to The Girl Without Hands: both films feature a “Grimm” in their credits. In High School, the corrupt Principal Grimm is responsible for the titular disaster (“if the student council had known, you would’ve stood trial for your crimes”), while Girl Without Hands is based on that old folk tale by a pair of like-named brothers (who, in all likelihood are not related to the principal).

‘My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea.’

* Okay, the forthcoming My Little Pony feature film is 2D, but it’s a theatrical extension of a 2D TV franchise that’s been around for quite a while; a sudden switch to CGI ponies might confuse its primary audience (but not the bronies who’ve been making CGI fan films starring their own digital ponies for years).

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Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.