The romantic notion of "movie magic" has faded over the years. Once upon a time, special effects were just that - special. But now we know how it's all done. We know CGI-laden blockbusters are churned out in silicon sweatshops, with a million computer monkeys bashing a million keyboards to render Superman's flapping cape and Tom Cruise's fake, rock hard abba-dabbas to the last, minute detail. We know the tricks. Special effects aren't all that special these days, regardless of how impressive they are on the big screen.
With that said, the technique of stop-motion animation still blows my hair back. Even though I know the basics of how it's done, I still don't know how they do it. I can't figure it out. The amount of time and plain old elbow grease that goes into creating the illusion of inanimate objects living and breathing at 24 frames per second is boggling. And that right there is genuine movie magic.
Assembled from two prototypical short films of the same name, Takahide Hori's JUNK HEAD is a true technical and artistic marvel, and is currently part of the 2017 Fantasia Film Festival lineup. It utilizes tried and true stop-motion to great effect, building a truly unique dystopian vision that is unlike anything you've seen before. The world of JUNK HEAD is a rusted, dirty, worn down nightmare. The sets, or models - or whatever you want to call them - are agonizingly fascinating.
The only thing more inscrutable than the technique used to create JUNK HEAD is its plot. This is a futuristic world with it's own lore, where the sad, twisted denizens worship long-gone humans as mythological, ancient Gods. Programs of cloning and genetic experimentation were used to replace workers, creating a hierarchy of horrors that live in the layers of a subterranean underworld. The deeper you go, the more fraught with danger it becomes. The protagonist - the titular junk head, who is literally a human head - is found by a motley crew of researchers when it somehow makes its way down from one of the upper levels. They put his head inside a body, and send him on a quest into the depths.
The characters are rendered with simple yet captivating designs. Some of the creatures are particularly unsettling, and could have easily sprung from the fever dreams of H.R. Giger. There’s monsters, robots, cyborgs, Groot-like tree people… you name it. Three of the sidekick characters resemble a mix between penguins and the ubiquitous Minions from Despicable Me, but you won’t be seeing these guys in a Happy Meal box anytime soon. There’s an odd sexuality to the imagery, with a superfluity of phalluses, and a few of the only distinguishably female characters are endowed with comically-oversized breasts.
The protagonist reminds me of ASIMO, the humanoid robot created in Japan a couple of decades ago to demonstrate advances in robotic technology. He’s charmingly cute and likeable, although as a tool in the story, he never has much direction of his own. The plot sees him pushed from place to place by side characters. It’s an unconventional story that at times feels disjointed, perhaps due to the film only being a half hour short originally, then extended to feature length after a successful Indiegogo campaign.
I never did watch the short, however I remember hearing about it when it first released in 2014. As much as I fell in love with the visual style and the creativity, I’m not convinced the film needed to be two hours long. Between the plot which never flows quite as smoothly as I would like, and the long running time, it bordered on feeling like a slog toward the end.
This is not to say that JUNK HEAD isn’t worth your time. Quite the opposite. It’s an incredible feat of vision and animation. I’m just saying it may have lived better as a series of shorts, rather than a feature. Make sure to stick around for the credits, and marvel at how Takahide Hori did everything from directing, to writing, to animating, to lighting, to editing, to catering, to probably cleaning the studio’s toilets. You also get a glimpse at the work that went into this film via a short video that plays in the background. I have nothing but utmost respect for the work of stop motion animators, and JUNK HEAD is a beautiful showcase.
JUNK HEAD had it's International Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival on July 23rd.