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Robert Hull [Film Festival 04.24.12] animation comedy drama mystery experimental

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Melancholic, mournful, literate and bittersweet, Chris Sullivan’s 15-years-in-the-making animation is like a dark soulmate to Garrison Keillor’s much-loved Lake Wobegon tales. It must be a personal triumph for Sullivan, but viewers – if they have the patience for this languid journey – are rewarded with a wry, keenly observed story that also isn’t afraid to engage with weighty issues.

With wood, paper and scissors among the equipment list in the credits – as well as a 16mm film camera – it’s a sign that Consuming Spirits isn’t going to be giving Pixar any sleepless nights. But Sullivan’s movie revels in the homespun charm of its cutout animation, pencil drawing, collage, and stop-motion animation.

The black and white line drawings that indicate a flashback shake and shimmer because they’re hand-drawn; the wood houses, metal figures, toy cars and material that makes the town’s roads are rough around the edges (the material/road moves as car’s move along it) because they’re handmade or because there isn’t a computer program in sight. What always comes across throughout the 2hrs 10 minute runtime is a joy in moviemaking and in the telling a tale with wit and intelligence.

Consuming Spirits – the wordplay of its title an indication of the inventiveness on display – is set in the rust-belt Appalachian town of Magguson, and follows the lives of Earl Gray, Gentian Violet, and Victor Blue. All three work on the town’s newspaper, the Daily Suggester. It’s the kind of local read that might have a front-page lead of ‘Cat climbs tree’, ‘Weather Expected’. Their lives seem connected only by their work, and by living in a small town, but as the movie develops information seeps out to suggest the trio may be connected by roots deeper than meetings at the water-cooler.

Don’t think for one second that the hand-shot, hand-drawn animations have a lack of detail. The sets are full of quirky charm and intricate detail and Sullivan is brave enough to attempt more-than-basic camera angles: as Earl’s radio show, Gardeners Corners, plays out, there are beautiful shots as the camera moves over and above the houses of Magguson. The editing isn’t as fluid as a live-action movie but the cuts, and Sullivan’s decision to divide the story into five sections, ensure that Consuming Spirits has the right pace to match its captivating visuals.

What really, and I mean really, sets Consuming Spirits up as great watch are its script and vocal performances (in the main roles, Chris Sullivan, Robert Levy, and Nancy Andrews). There’s such a keen eye for detail, nuance and idiosyncrasy; there are clever jokes that if you’re not careful will drift over you – the whole thing comes from a place that loves language and wants to play with it. As I mentioned at the outset the script’s not fearful of tackling social issues either – but in telling you what these are I may giveaway a little of the ending, and while it’s not unguessable, why spoil the ride?

What ties all this clever, impressive and entertaining filmmaking together is a truly haunting soundtrack. The traditional and folk songs are the perfect embodiment of where the movie is coming from and, like the best soundtracks, defines and enhances what you’re watching by adding wistful melancholia and nostalgia.

In the age of Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks animation that’s in and out in under 90 minutes, Consuming Spirits isn’t for the usual ‘cartoon’ crowd. It’s a grown-up film for people who like to think and consider the images that stream in front of them. It’s a gem of a movie and just because it’s unpolished, and a bit rough at the edges, it doesn’t mean it glows any less brightly.

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