By Robert S. Hummel
Don Hertzfeldt is the Davy Crockett of contemporary animation: a self-made man and a master of primitive tools with a legendary reputation. For years he’s been making short animated films all on his lonesome, acting as writer, director, artist, producer, sound designer and distributor without outside assistance. Using an ancient, 35mm film camera, he’s brought humor, majesty and life to an aesthetic largely centered around stick figures. For a craft as involved as animation, his process is as improbable as it is improbably independent. This artist works hard for his creative control, and has been rewarded for it with over 200 awards from major film festivals worldwide.
Now, after years of resistance, Hertzfeldt has come to embrace the possibilities of a digital workflow, a fitting evolution for a short set in the future. World of Tomorrow, which won top prizes at both Sundance and SXSW, shows no sign of creative compromise in the shift from analog. In fact, it may be his finest work to date — there is no overstating how much wonder, wisdom and bizarre humor has been packed into just 17 minutes of storytelling.
The premise is simple enough: 4-year-old Emily is contacted by her adult clone from the distant future, and is taken on a brief tour of the next several hundred years of life on Earth. Indeed, World of Tomorrow is more concerned with exploring the possibilities of the conceit than with conflict or arc, but one can’t help but grow close to these characters — the clone, robotic and matter-of-fact in her retelling of past sadness, and little Emily, innocent and unaware and adorable. Hertzfeldt had his 4-year-old niece provide the voice of Emily, and the result is one of the most realistic characterizations of childlike wonder on record. Emily sings songs, tells go-nowhere stories and babbles non-sequiturs as her clone describes how the world will end. That contrast between the innocent and the clinically wise gives the film a human core that resonates loudly and clearly throughout.
The characters are so compelling, it is easy to undersell the visual achievement of World of Tomorrow. Hertzfeldt’s work is stuffed full of striking images, but he has some of his finest compositions here, from galactic landscapes to strange future limbos and burnt sepia memory-spaces. Animation has always been the medium of wide imaginations, but the scope of the film look is unprecedented — it makes for a fascinating, unpredictable setting to trip through.
World of Tomorrow is a trip, an experience. To give away further plot details would neutralize the bliss of randomness and discovery that makes it such a thrill to see. But Hertzfeldt has crafted more than just a fun ride: For all its wonder, the film’s emotional spectrum is as wide as its range of color, gracefully inciting curiosity, grief, amusement and warmth all in the same breath. This has always been Hertzfeldt’s greatest asset: For all his gifts and talents in animation, he is a peerless storyteller, and with nothing but a computer, a microphone and a charming kid, he has made a dazzling work of joy.