I’ve been very honest, if not downright aggressive, about how much I love stop motion films with no dialogue, so I was extremely excited to get the chance to see legendary visual effects creator Phil Tippet’s feature debut Mad God. Tippet began his career as a stop motion animator and miniaturist on Star Wars in 1977 and since then has worked on films like Robocop, Jurassic Park, and the Twilight films as an effects creator and supervisor. He brings all of this experience and an overwhelming amount of love for the craft to Mad God and it shows.
The film is immediately breathtaking as we watch a steampunky humanoid descend in a diving bell through the air over a landscape that looks like the visions of the future in the first two Terminator films. As the explorer (as I’ll call the character in the diving bell) continues beyond this world, they move through what seems like miles of stratification, with a variety of backgrounds including what looks like human giant bones. Until finally, they land somewhere deep in the Earth (or whatever planet this is) and embark on their journey.
This journey takes them through what feels like a number of different worlds, filled with a huge diversity of unique creatures. There are tiny gnomes that are played by real humans, something with a body that resembles a T. Rex but a face that’s closer to the Nemesis from Resident Evil, and a giant organism that seems to be made up of multiple expanding and contracting hearts covered in eyes and sustains itself by eating the funneled feces of tortured humanoid creatures. There’s a lot of brilliant play with scale here as well as the gnomes are so small that they’re unwittingly crushed under the foot of the explorer, but the humanoids being tortured to feed the massive creature are at least seven times larger than our protagonist. This scale play also keeps the world feeling overwhelming, beautifully and horrifyingly inexplicable.
There’s also more creative use of human actors in the film than just the gnomes, creating a strange relationship to our reality that’s nonexistent in other stop motion films. At one point there’s a shadow play with humans, and in what is likely the most disturbing and explicitly gory sequence in a generally disturbing and gory film, a human doctor performs an autopsy on a stop motion creature. During this sequence, and others throughout the film, Tippet makes use of some of the squelchiest squelch sounds I’ve ever heard and regularly covers the screen in viscera. It’s also fun that one of the humans in the film is played by Alex Cox, director of cult classics Repo Man and Sid & Nancy.
Sadly near the halfway point the film seems to feel the need to establish a more significant narrative than simply watching the explorer travel through these incredibly realized worlds and walk among horrifying creatures. It’s at this point that the film falls apart a bit as it gestures towards a plot but doesn’t have a clear or firm enough story that an audience can easily follow. Introducing a plot creates a problem that a lack of plot would have sidestepped: if there’s no plot you can’t try to understand it and fail. And the attempt to understand the plot detracts from the otherwise pure visual experience. By the end the film reminded me of The Star Wars Holiday Special as it jumped from sequence to sequence without much regard for how they were connected by the semi-existent plot. Though to be very clear, Mad God is much more accomplished, enjoyable, and visually astounding than The Star Wars Holiday Special and the issues with the plot are minuscule compared to the literally awesome images and worlds that are created in the film.
If you liked this article, you can read Kyle’s other work here.