As much as I find amazement in the animation work of studios like Pixar and DreamWorks and feel the warmth of a hug in the hand-drawn animation of Studio Ghibli and Folimage, stop-motion always has felt like the pinnacle of animation, reserved only for a select few willing to put in the insane time and effort to achieve the singular end product. Even in the most family-friendly of circumstances, à la Wallace & Gromit, there’s always an uncanny effect that permeates the animation of these films; it’s something perfectly explored in the less family-friendly, but still PG Coraline and Paranorman from Laika. But it’s a rarity to see any animator take the time to construct such intricate worlds via stop-motion animation for adult audiences, with adult tastes, and I can’t say I necessarily blame them. The amount of grueling planning and effort needed to craft these films makes it feel as if the only endgame is to make a film with as universal an audience as possible, but that approach loses out on the insane potential that stop motion holds to create some truly dark material. Phil Tippett’s Mad God eschews all fears of losing out on a large audience and makes a film for those like me who have been waiting for stop-motion animation to go truly feral.
Shot between 1987 and 2020, the course of 33 years (suck it, Richard Linklater), Mad God began as Phil Tippett’s pet project while working as the animation supervisor on RoboCop 2. After working on, and subsequently winning an Oscar, for his work with the visual effects on Jurassic Park, Tippett’s faith in the project waned as he became more sought after in the industry and the onset of CGI animation seemed to antiquate his analog stop-motion animation. In the mid-2000s, with the encouragement of members of his studio, as well as financial backing on Kickstarter, and a commitment of volunteers to work Saturdays to create the project in between their official projects, Mad God lived again. Initially beginning as a series of shorts, Mad God began to take form as a feature-length stop-motion descent into hell, and the end result is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Purposely lacking a concrete narrative, Mad God takes a slow look through an unnamed apocalyptic hellscape falling apart at the seams. A silent assassin is sent to the bottom of this universe in a diving bell, tasked with detonating a bomb to destroy the hellish underworld of violence and depravity, forging a new world in its wake. As The Assassin discovers the lengths of this universe’s depravity, the seemingly simple task of destroying this complex ecosystem becomes a much more insurmountable task.
Mad God, if it wasn’t clear by the synopsis alone, is a deeply unpleasant film to experience, but it exists as that by design. For a film only 84 minutes long, it’s chock-full of deeply distressing imagery reminiscent of the darkest works of Zdzisław Beksiński, Francis Bacon, and Gerald Scarfe’s work on Pink Floyd – The Wall. It tackles visuals never taken on in stop-motion animation before, and does it with such a measured assurance that it never once feels like anything short of a virtuoso honing his craft over the course of 30-odd years.
Mad God is gross, it’s depressing, it’s crushingly nihilistic, but it also explores the cruel beauty and nature of rebirth that can come from a particularly nasty act of sacrifice. There are times when Mad God can feel overtly edgy simply for the sake of it in the moment, but there’s always a follow-through on every bit of squelching violence and unnerving gloom that Tippett throws at the audience, perhaps not always making us feel better about it, but giving us the narrative tools to assemble the structure of logic that dictates the world of Mad God, and making the end result feel entirely more satisfying as the fabric of said universe begins to be remade before our eyes.
Mad God is seriously dense stuff, and it’s playing to the back row of a niche audience that doesn’t get to experience animation tailored to their interests in such a visceral way. While this may lead to many audiences finding themselves left cold by the end result of Mad God, it being released by Shudder and IFC Midnight places it directly into the hands of the fellow sickos who will appreciate the time, effort, and legacy that follow Phil Tippett and his uncompromising vision of perhaps the closest representation of Hell I’ve ever seen on film. It’s a certified nightmare for everyone getting to watch, but for a film that’s playing so closely into the hands of its target audience alone, that’s perhaps the highest recommendation one could levy to a film so gruesomely singular.
In a world where everyone gets their flowers and animators get their dues for the work they’ve done for generations in film, something like Mad God, so entirely distinctive and bizarre, unmarketable to the masses, should take home the Oscar for Best Animated Film on principle alone, even if we know it’s going to be Lightyear or some other more safe work.
All hail the sickos, and the art they create.
In select theaters June 10th, 2022.
Available to stream via Shudder June 16th, 2022.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.