Don Hertzfeldt’s simplistic animations and uniquely hilarious style have taken the animated short film genre to new heights. Having won countless festival and critics awards (including nods from both the Academy and Cannes), Hertzfeldt’s work has a style all its own. An exercise in simplicity, the filmmaker’s animations feature his trademark stick figures and deal with an impressive array of themes — from madcap hilarity to the deepest human needs and desires. Opening to widespread acclaim at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Hertzfeldt’s newest short, World Of Tomorrow, has captivated audiences around the globe after winning Sundance’s Short Film Grand Jury Prize along with SXSW’s Grand Jury Award. Diving into heavy themes, and a new digital animation medium, Hertzfeldt manages to keep his film remarkably light yet vividly stimulating.
Like most of Hertzfeldt’s work, World of Tomorrow begins innocuously enough with a ringing “videophone.” The young Emily (Hertzfeldt’s unbearably cute, four-year-old niece Winona Mae) eagerly runs to the machine, pressing buttons and switches until she is greeted by a message from the future: a “Third Generation” Emily (Julia Pott). Now referred to as Emily Prime, the girl discovers that she will come to be involved in humanity’s quest for eternal life. When Emily comes “of age,” she will be impregnated with a clone of herself, onto which her memories and consciousness will one day be programmed. The third-generation Emily seeks both a way to connect with her “Prime” and to uncover the secrets of the future, as the summoning of Emily Prime has seemingly been predestined via the cyclical nature of time.
Hertzfeldt’s impressive ability to deal with abstract concepts of life and nature is undoubtedly one of the major reasons for his global appeal. The malleability of his simple cartoons and universal narratives open the work up to countless, individualized meanings. The fact that Emily’s dialogue was molded into the story from conversational recordings (in order to obtain his niece’s cooperation) proves the far-reaching universality of his story; Hertzfeldt need not worry about trivial details with such strong underlying elements. Not bound by race, religion or even a much of a form, Hertzfeldt’s characters are empty vessels into which the audience can pour their own experiences and attitudes. The simple profundity with which Hertzfeldt addresses his unanswered, philosophical quandaries gently nudges audience members into countless avenues of thought and interpretation.
It is clear that Emily is making the case for the day-to-day enjoyment of life, and the consideration of big questions. Offering advice that she remembers hearing during her own visit, Emily remarks, “Do not lose time on daily trivialities. Do not dwell on petty detail. For all of these things melt away and drift apart within the obscure fabric of time.” Ponderous words indeed, yet on further consideration, one notices the bulk of Hertzfeldt’s story being positioned at an opposition with this sentiment. Emily’s story is full of minor details of her life — each developing into massively impactful moments. In the eyes of an “art installation,” and the memories of her husband, Emily finds solace in minute glimpses of trivial moments. When describing the cloning process, she mentions the modest mental deterioration (“muntal detarioration”); the loss of bits and pieces of her memory. Hertzfeldt makes a strong case for these minuscule losses in both Emily’s disconnect from emotion, and the general state of the world. Clones who live forever lose touch with who they once were, as they lack new experiences and forget the modest — yet definitive — events of their youth.
Entirely composed of a conversation between a woman and her much younger self, World Of Tomorrow is able to confront the metaphysical nature of such an event while toying with the exasperated hilarity of discussing anything remotely abstract with a four-year-old. Emily Prime’s amazement with the future is of such a limited scope, as the ability to draw in the air while changing the background color of the “outer-net” provides more enjoyment than the prospects of a global neural network. She is delighted by the small aspects of life, and this childlike wonderment is the source of both humor and a great admiration. Living for hundreds of years has not improved Emily’s life on any account, as she was far happier being a four-year-old girl exploring the small wonders of life.
Hertzfeldt’s boundless imagination and jovial approach to heady, transcendental concepts can be a revelatory experience. Laughing through tears and crying through laughter are unexpected symptoms of a 16-minute short, yet this seems to be the standard reaction. A deeply impactful film (regardless of length or medium), Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow has a penetrating gift for resplendent empathy — solidifying itself as a shining star of 2015, and one of the finest films of the decade.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of sunny San Diego, California. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.