World of Tomorrow is a brilliant short by American animator Don Hertzfeldt, the latest in a career that stretches back at this point by nearly 30 years and has consisted almost entirely of shorts. Even his one long movie, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, turns out on closer inspection to be a compilation of three shorter ones.
World of Tomorrow is also part of a grander work, along with Parts Two (The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts) and Three (The Absent Destinations of David Prime). But it’s this first one that got the Oscar nomination, largely, I suspect, on account of its cuteness, though there’s an iron hand beneath the velvet glove.
Cutes come courtesy of his lead character, Emily (voiced by Hertzfeldt’s four-year-old niece Winona Mae), and rather than acting as such Winona Mae is recorded by Hertzfeldt as she goes about the daily business of being a four year old – making burbling sounds, having a fun time and asking the occasional tricky question.
Though he used CG this time out (a first), Hertzfeldt put together World of Tomorrow in a way that’s similar to Faith and John Hubley’s working practice on their 1974 animated short Cockaboody, and Nick Park’s MO on Creature Comforts (both acknowledged inspirations) – the voices come first. Real people, no script, all the errms and errs left in, with the animator working over the top of that.
It makes for a naturalism you don’t get even with the best actors and works particularly well here because this is a sci-fi story of a little tot being whisked away to the world of tomorrow by one of her own descendants. Emily of the future tells little Emily (who she calls Emily Prime) that one day when Emily Prime grows up she’ll be impregnated and will produce “clones” of herself which will, she will hope, enable her to live for ever. “Oh,” burbles little Emily.
This touch of darkness – it’s not for the sake of the children that Emily Prime will spawn but for herself – runs through this film and offsets any potential attack of the killer schmalzes.
Time travel is very dangerous, Emily of the future continues, before whisking Emily Prime away on the little jaunt that’s the story of the movie. “Wow!” says Emily Prime. “Butterflies! I saw some pink ones.”
Contrast is the guiding idea. Against time travel a gurgles innocent. Against the usual hi-tech of the sci-fi genre the simple stick figures of Emily and Emily Prime. This extends to the style of animation – white on black, jagged against rounded, fuzzy against sharp, colours that offset each other. The robotic voice of Future Emily and the organic, imprecise, mistake-prone Emily Prime.
There is political content – in the future a meteor is about to strike and Future Emily explains that the rich are now busy uploading their consciousnesses to deep space, while the poor are taking their chances on “discount time travel”.
There is pscychology – at one point Future Emily tells Emily Prime how proud she is of being a sad person, “because it means I am more alive.”
There is philosophy – “Live well and broadly,” Future Emily counsels her young great great grandmother. “Now is the envy of the dead.”
There is so much in Herzfeldt’s 17 minutes that it’s worth watching a few times. It didn’t in the end clinch the Oscar. In a year that favoured the gnarly and the downbeat – The Revenant, Spotlight, The Big Short, The Danish Girl and Room all got gongs – the Best Short Oscar went to the Chilean Bear Story, in which a lonely old bear tells a story about the mistreatment of animals in a fascist state. Hertzfeldt didn’t win for his 2001 Oscar-nominated film Rejected either. His day will come. I doubt it bothers him. This film suggest he’s just not that kind of guy.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023