Pixar’s Toy Story, and all its sequels? Delightful, right? Witty, fast-moving, emotionally resonant when they need to be, poignant and clever. The characters will endure for their sharp dialogue and strong personalities, even when that CGI has dated and looks to us like Tron looks to young, misguided yoofs nowadays. But watching Jiří Barta‘s In the Attic – Who Has a Birthday Today?, I’m reminded (even though I’m biased on this issue) of how stop-motion retains its affective power even when popular rhetoric might dictate that it has only an occasional retro appeal for enthusiasts and aficionados.
In their dusty old attic, a group of well-worn, played-out toys wake to go through their daily routine – rolling a dice to determine whose birthday it’s going to be. There’s Schubert, cobbled together out of bits and pieces, a body of plasticine and a bottle-top on his head; Sir Handsome, a traditional Czech marionette, a Don Quixote figure who speaks in verse and imagines himself a dragon-slaying knight; Teddy, a gruff old bear who’s clearly had more than his fair share of powerful hugs in his lifetime; Buttercup, a ragdoll, ministers to them all with maternal diligence. Together, they staff the model railway that gives them a work schedule, scheduling their lives around transportation for the other toys. The whole set bristles with beautiful details: a chess-piece family routinely bobs aboard the train; cogs, wheels, pistons and gadgets spin pump and whirr; pillows float in the sky, snowing feathers; bedsheets flow like a river; sackcloth flaps in the air like carrion crows. The attic is their whole world, an alternative space where everything from the human world finds its analogue in the places and spaces managed by the toys.
Inside the train, figures become 2D cartoon versions of themselves. This is their imaginative space, where they carry on the tasks which their owners once performed for them. Here, as in Toy Story, there’s a precarious relationship between humans and toys – the dolls need to conceal their independent existence from their owners, to deny the very nature of that ownership. Andrea and her grandma occasionally interrupt the action of the toys’ world, petrifying them back into inanimation. These moments might show up the insignificance of the toys’ world – it is easily switched back into a diminutive objectness.
If Toy Story celebrated the vitality of toys, their willingness and ability to serve their human masters and inspire their imagination, it also had a whiff of melancholy at the impermanence of that relationship. Toys do not grow, age or reproduce. They need their owners in ways that are not fully reciprocated. Barta’s film tries to reassure us that the toys retain their independence, going about their business regardless, even in spite of the humans who live below them. These characters carry a sense-memory of their former function as toys, replaying the roles they were assigned from birth, and therein lies a gentle description of a para-world of social roles and ritualised behaviours. Barta has clearly been inspired by Svankmajer, and finds a similar poignancy in the private lives of dolls, the sacred, haunted objects of childhood and their ability to absorb and reflect the meanings invested in them. This is less sinister than something like Svankmajer’s Jabberwocky (though a shot of dolls’ limbs boiling in a pot might be a homage), where dolls are portrayed as the proxies for human cycles of indoctrination, conformity and authoritarianism, but there’s a similar metaphor in play.
There is malevolence, too. When Buttercup is tricked and abducted, she is taken away to the Land of Evil, an upper level of the attic, from which the evil Head surveys the attic with the aid of spies, eyes on stalks and a black cat (again, similar to the cat that prevents escape from the nursery in Jabberwocky). Just as the toys, no longer played with, continue their vocations in apparent perpetuity, so the Head sustains the memory of a communist-era police state by masterminding by proxy the manipulation of life in the attic. Played by a human actor in heavy make-up, immobilised except for eyes, mouth, and hands that can leave their body to retune the TV station or pick up the phone, the Head comes on like a (semi-)living statue, an image of a body rather than it’s actuality. He occupies a state somewhere between animated and alive, between synthetic and organic, accumulating acolytes and apparatus in his lair of stasis and stagnation while the productive toys carry on their lives below, unaware that they are being watched. The journey to rescue Buttercup, to put their memorised skills to heroic purpose, gives the toys an epic quest to fulfil, but it also reminds us of the way toys, and the games we make them play, can only really be miniature versions of our own formulae of work and power. Some reviews have wondered whether this is suitable for kids, the presumed target audience for a film about toys. Well, it’s not exactly Quay Brothers creepy, and it might only seem perturbing to adults for him dusty, careworn dolls connote death and the passage of time, so as long as your kids haven’t yet figured out that the games they play are just rehearsals for the numbing, pointless circles in which their adult selves will be forced to run until their bodies wear down, they’ll have no problems with it. Just kidding – it’s a delightful, beautiful film that will give you new faith in the ability of careful craft and astonishing attention to detail to conjure unforgettable imagery.
- mp3 audio of Jiri Barta discussing the film on the AFI podcast.
- Review by Jackson Bishop at SBCC Film Reviews.
- Synopsis and review at Bio Illusion.
- Review in Variety.
- Interview with Barta from 2002.
See more stills from the film at my Flickr page, or in the slideshow below:
Vodpod videos no longer available.