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‘Stopmotion’ Review: Art Infects Rather Than Imitates Life in IFC’s Partly Animated Creepshow


English animator Robert Morgan has deservedly accrued a shelf of awards over the past quarter-century or so for shorts like “The Cat With Hands,” “The Separation” and ickily awesome “Bobby Yeah.” Their macabre, surreal nightmares are at once threatening and oddly winsome, with a sinister aesthetic equally redolent of the Brothers Quay, early David Lynch and the painter Francis Bacon — all of whom count among the director’s admitted influences. 

He’s been in no hurry to adopt a longer format, and his first feature underlines the wisdom of that reluctance. Not unprecedented among his work in its mix of animated and live-action elements, “Stopmotion” demonstrates the difficulty in stretching such a singular, fantastical sensibility to suit a full-length project’s storytelling requirements. 

This “Repulsion”-like tale of a fragile young woman’s descent into madness, starring “The Nightingale’s” Aisling Franciosi, arrests attention with its vivid, escalating eruptions of grotesque imagination. What’s problematic here is the real world those intrusions should trouble — masterful as he is at creating the stuff of nightmares, Morgan (as well as co-writer Robin King) is much less assured handling the character actions, psychology and dialogue outside his heroine’s fevered psyche. 

“Stopmotion,” which IFC opens on U.S. screens on Feb. 23 (general VOD release follows March 15, then specialty streamer Shudder on May 31), is at heart the old horror nugget of the cursed creation that seems evermore inclined to kill its creator. You might argue fictive fabled animator Suzanne Blake (Stella Gonet) is already staring down that fate at the film’s start: Perhaps exacerbated by her painstaking life’s work “bringing dead things to life” onscreen, she’s become so arthritic she can hardly move her arms or hands. 

Thus most related labor is now accomplished by daughter Ella (Franciosi), to whom she’s taught all she knows — albeit less like a mentor than a tyrannical master craftsperson endlessly haranguing their beleaguered apprentice. She’s planted in her only child’s mind the terrible doubt that Ella herself has no artistic spark, and is useless “without someone telling me what to do.”

“All I want is to finish this film before I die,” the mother moans, as both labor on her cyclops-themed anticipated swan song. But a stroke lands her in the hospital instead. Rather than continuing with that piece, Ella wants to do something of her own — moving into a new apartment/studio for that purpose, then finding a convenient wellspring of inspiration in a mysterious little girl next door (Caoilinn Springall). 

That nameless child more or less pushes her way in, then begins feeding Ella ideas about the “Ash Man,” which becomes the menace driving a new stop-motion project they commence together. Of course, just as the wee neighbor seems less than entirely “real,” so this phantom ghoul grows more real — at least to terrified Ella — the longer they spend visualizing via clay models and photography. 

Franciosi is up to the task of limning our alternately prickly, needy and defensive protagonist’s mental decline, which eventually arrives at a destination of both external violence and Cronenbergian body horror. But script and direction here aren’t nearly as good at contextualizing her collapse as they are at realizing the creepsome visions (and sounds) that hasten it. 

Despite the rather caricatured cruelty of her mother, there is no indication that anyone among her barely sketched peer friends or teachers (all also involved in animation, it seems) has ever noticed anything “off” about Ella. She has a normal relationship with a normal boyfriend (Tom York). Yet he’s so blandly underdeveloped a figure, he only clouds our perception of her further. The sole other notable personage here is his sister (Therica Wilson-Read), presented as a waspish, back-stabbing type. 

“Stopmotion” can’t quite figure out how it wants to portray the world outside Ella’s headspace, or whether it even wants to portray it at all. It would be one thing if the entire film inhabited that paranoid, fantasy-prone zone. But instead it halfheartedly flirts with bringing in everyday reality, without providing the terra firma of naturalistic actions and plausible personalities that needs. So there’s a richness of design and mood to the fantastical elements here, but not much actual sense of threat. For that, we’d need to feel ordinary life and sanity are imperiled — things that never get established in the first place. 

The result is at once texturally striking and a bit emotionally airless. Beyond the director’s eerie animations, there are effective contributions from production designer Felicity Hickson, Saffron Collane’s costumes, Scarlett O’Connell’s hair and makeup and Dan Martin’s creature FX. What falls short are the routine elements required for a relatively conventional feature-length narrative. Of course, such requirements can be waived: In recent years, two notable epics of the same titular technique, Phil Tippett’s “Mad God” and Chilean “The Wolf House,” managed to sustain disturbing visions while remaining near-abstract in realms of plot cohesion and character depth. 

One wishes “Stopmotion” had taken an equally grand conceptual leap, since its considerable imaginative style and technique get hamstrung to a degree by lip service paid to matters its makers have little evident interest or skill in — like hewing to a thriller’s basic story beats, and trying to make actors sound like actual people in underwritten roles. 

The extent to which they do work is in large part thanks to the all-purpose glue of atmospherics discreetly but firmly supported by composer Lola de la Mata and sound designer Ben Baird. Robert Morgan unquestionably has a knack for the extraordinary; it is both a measure of his talent and of its limits that this debut feature stumbles only when it tries to do something on the ordinary side.