The flawless, if sterile, computer illusions of Jurassic Park condemned stop-motion animation to extinction as a special effect. First developed in the silents by pioneering animator Willis O'Brien, this technique involved the frame-by-frame shooting of articulated puppets to simulate movement when run at regular speed. But it was always too expensive and time-consuming to be anything but a rarity, usually showcased in juvenile spectacles involving dinosaurs or mythical monsters.
The obsolescence of stop-motion as a special effect may, however, give the method new stature as a "pure" film art. The movement of O'Brien's and Ray Harryhausen's fantasy creatures was never all that realistic. It always did have a rickety, stylized look that added to the charm of their films, and made them seem like the work of mad, gleeful magicians. This quality of stop-motion is still pursued by expressionistic filmmakers like the Brothers Quay and the Czech master Jan Svankmajer.
Brit animator Dave Borthwick's The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb falls somewhere between the expressionistic and the conventionally fanciful. It's unmistakably a fairy tale, but it sure as heck isn't a kiddy movie. It sends the diminutive hero of the title questing through dirty, insect-infested slums and nightmarish technological horrors. In this version, Tom, apparently the product of artificial insemination gone awry, has a bald, babyish head with an innocent gaze--he looks rather like Isaac Bashevis Singer. He's born to a normal-size couple, who, in Borthwick's most remarkable effect, are played by live actors manipulated as if they were stop-motion models. Malevolent men abduct Tom from his poor parents and spirit him off to a laboratory full of hideous sci-fi abominations. He eventually escapes, with the help of a winged lizard, through a waste duct. In the toxic dump outside, he encounters a race of people his own size--the mutant product, perhaps, of the laboratory's research. Tom joins them as an avenging warrior against "the giants" and their horrible lab.
If there's an allegorical point in all this, apart from the obvious one that squalor and terror are by-products of modern science, I missed it. But I don't think Borthwick has anything too rigorous in mind. The film isn't comic, but it has a crazy, free-associational feel. Borthwick just wants to turn a Jungian hero loose on a modern landscape, and see what happens. The eerie result is a sort of cyberpunk version of Mr. Bill.
The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb, which opens this week at Valley Art Theatre in Tempe, runs just over an hour; the bill is filled out by another short, directed by the Scottish actor Peter Capaldi, appetizingly titled Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life.