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Innocence and ignorance in ‘World of Tomorrow’

| Thursday, February 11, 2016

InnocenceIgnorance_webERIN RICE | The Observer

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him this happy before…”

My roommates stared at me as we watched “World of Tomorrow” on Netflix. Together, the three of us demonstrated the full spectrum of potential reactions to the short film: One thought it was bizarre, one was fascinated with creator Don Hertzfeldt’s vision of the future and I was taken by Winona Mae’s indescribably adorable performance as young Emily or Emily Prime. The ability to draw such seemingly different reactions from his audience is part of what has already given 39-year-old Hertzfeldt auteur-status.

It would be hard to make a short film more complete than Hertzfeldt’s 2015 masterpiece, “World of Tomorrow.” The Academy Award-nominated work does more than any 16-minute work consisting of animated stick figures has the right to. The film is a comedy, tragedy, science-fiction and coming-of-age hybrid.

Hertzfeldt is known for packing a lot of substance into a small package.  His first, and arguably still most popular, project was a compilation of animated skits titled “Rejected,” released in 2000. Even if you haven’t seen “Rejected,” chances are you’ve heard it quoted. I remember kids repeating “My spoon’s too big!” and “I am a ba-nana!” back in middle school. The video pretended to be a series of rejected children’s cartoons that progressively got weirder and weirder. “Rejected,” Hertzfeldt’s first work after film school, earned an Academy Award nomination.

Building on the success of “Rejected,” Hertzfeldt climbed to even greater critical acclaim with “It’s Such a Beautiful Day.”  The full-length film, released in 2012, combined three of his previous shorts. It maintained a lot of the dark humor seen in “Rejected,” but delved deeper into the psyche. “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” follows the thoughts of a stick-figure named Bill as he slowly succumbs to an unnamed mental illness that struck me as something between Alzheimer’s and a stroke. It’s disturbing, even terrifying, at times, but you should definitely pull it up on Netflix.

In the context of Hertzfeldt’s filmography, “World of Tomorrow” stands out as both an aberration and, somehow, the perfect successor. Without giving away too much, “World of Tomorrow” tells the story of a young girl, Emily, via a video call with her clone that lives several hundred years in the future. From the moment the two begin talking, the plot is an amazing waltz between innocence and ignorance. Clone Emily flatly relays her life story to Emily Prime, particularly her struggles to comprehend her own emotions and purpose — all in light of the fact that the world is about to end. Emily Prime understands none of this. In fact, the tale seems almost entirely lost on her until, with unusual clarity, she freezes Clone Emily by remarking that she misses her dead husband.

That dynamic, an adult woman struggling to understand and a little girl just playing along, is a beautifully-performed balancing act of disarming and charming. It is the sort of contradiction that characterizes all of Hertzfeldt’s work, and it’s a big reason why “World of Tomorrow” and “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” are both sitting at a cool 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s also the reason why it is almost impossible to sit through a Don Hertzfeldt cartoon unaffected.

In short, watch it.

All of the Oscar nominated short films will be shown in DPAC this Thursday and Friday.

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