This was one of those films that I saw about fifteen years ago, and which had become one of those hazy memories where you wonder whether or not it really happened. My memory was not helped by the film’s surreal, dreamlike quality, created primarily through the use of pixilation. This rarely used animation technique is nothing to do with computer animation (that’s a different kind of “pixel”), but a way of moving live actors frame by frame as if they were stop-motion puppets. Norman McLaren used this effect in Neighbours (1952). One can only imagine the discomfort of actors required to hold their position between exposed frames while their bodies, faces and surrounding puppet models are incrementally moved with painstaking care.
The Adventures of Tom Thumb may be just a simple tale of a little guy who, separated from his parents, goes on an odyssey, escaping from a grotesque laboratory (featuring creatures that look rather like extras from Quay Brothers or Svankmajer movies) into a quasi-medieval miniature world that is in conflict with the giants who have birthed Tom. But it suggests that more is going on. The opening shots show the fertilisation machines that send Tom down a conveyor belt to be delivered to his mother in another dimension. Animation, dealing as it does with the incarnation of things as living beings, is the perfect medium for such a mechanistic image of conception. Tom is tiny, like an undeveloped foetus. They seem surprised to find him alive. His parents inhabit a grim and grimy post-industrial town that looks like the worst of British social realist depictions of Northern working class squalor (enough adjectives in that sentence?). The simple happiness which Tom gives to his new folks is disrupted when he is abducted and taken off to a vivisection facility, from which he is shown an escape route into a toxic waste dump peopled by medieval peasants his own size, who live in fear of the giants (who are portrayed, like Tom’s parents, by live actors). Befriending Jack (the Giant Killer), Tom is reunited with his parents, before finding himself back in the “laboratorium”, where, from what I can work out, he is able to be reborn, full-size, to the same parents in more illustrious circumstances. Did I get it right? If anyone has a different understanding of events , please let me know. Sometimes the intricacies of plot escape me when I’m entranced by the animation.
Pixilation is a strange thing. Ordinarily, when live and animated performers share the screen, they are recorded separately then composited using optical processes. They therefore occupy distinct spaces and express very different modes of being and moving. When the human actors are also moved frame-by-frame, the effect is unsettling, a jerky unnatural kind of movement. It brings puppets and people onto the same ontological plane. Watching it for a while, it put me into a kind of trance with the uncanny oscillation that occurs when familiar things are rendered strange by a trick of the eye. Model animation can make objects seem haunted. The presence of the animators’ hands, edited out of the process to leave only the interstitial images that comprise the finished film, can be sensed but not detected. It is stranger still when applied to people. When objects are brought to life, there’s a powerful display of the power of moving images to instill the inanimate with the illusion of being, but with people, the effect is deaden them, to make them seem somehow less alive. The animated object and the objectified actor meet somewhere in the middle, on equal ground.
See also: Frankie Kowalski, “Instinctive Decisions: Dave Borthwick, Radical Independent.” Animation World Network.