Oscars Preview: Hertzfeldt’s Stick Figures Return in World of Tomorrow

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It’s not a charge lobbed at filmmakers as frequently as musicians, but the former are far from impervious to the hackneyed accusation of “selling out.” Let’s just get this out of the way: Don Hertzfeldt is the antithesis of a sellout. This is a filmmaker who inhabits and galvanizes perhaps the most obscure, unheralded expanse of independent filmmaking – animated shorts. Oh, and he refuses – and presumably scoffs at – countless ad campaign opportunities.

Hertzfeldt’s career has repeatedly intersected with the Sundance Film Festival, beginning with his 2001 short film Rejected, through his It’s Such a Beautiful Day trilogy, and most recently with the Oscar-nominated World of Tomorrow. An entire dissertation could be (and surely has been) written about the often glum, existential, and ultimately cleverly introspective work of the animator, but here we focus on World of Tomorrow, which is nominated for an Academy Award for Animated Short Film. It’s the second Oscar nomination for Hertzfeldt, who was also honored for Rejected as a 23-year-old.

In World of Tomorrow, Hertzfeldt again employs his signature stick figure technique while also making his first go at digital animation. It’s hardly a salient point to make here, considering the product is essentially the same, and Hertzfeldt himself would be the last to compromise quality for a more automated process. In World of Tomorrow, a little girl named Emily is taken on a disorienting tour into the distant future by a clone from 227 years in the future. This clone is actually a duplicate of Emily herself and has the ability to upload memories to her doubles. It is a process that has bred an entirely new society comprised of clones and transferred memories, and subsequently a fleet of just barely out-of-touch characters who still yearn for greater emotional capacity.

Aside from his penchant for the inscrutable, achieved through some balance of black humor, dry wit, and outright absurdity, World is particularly fascinating for its dialogue. The Emily from the present is voiced by Hertzfeldt’s niece Winona Mae, whom he had recorded during seemingly arbitrary conversations or while at play. On its own, her vivacious and curious intonation leaves its own heartfelt mark on the film. What’s less clear is how Hertzfeldt managed to script the film so that Emily’s dialogue is seamlessly infused in the plot. In any case, it strikes a glaring balance with the robotic drone of Emily from the future. And that may be Hertzfeldt’s lasting theme: that our collective demand for and obsession with the future, with potential, and with progress, is depleting us of the things that make us human. As the sage clone in World remarks, “That is the thing about the present... you only appreciate it when it is the past.”

World of Tomorrow is currently streaming on Netflix.

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