The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News

The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News

The independent student newspaper of Northeastern University

The Huntington News



Got an idea? A concern? A problem? Let The Huntington News know:

Retro Review: ‘Anomalisa’ tells a heartbreakingly human story through puppetry

Emma Liu

This article is part of the “Retro Review” series. Each month, four films — united by a singular theme — are assessed. The theme for November 2023 is “stop-motion.”

“What is it to be human? What is it to ache? What is it to be alive? I don’t know,” said Michael Stone (David Thewlis), the protagonist of director Charlie Kaufman’s first foray into stop-motion animation, “Anomalisa.”

Wow. A lot’s going on here. Kaufman’s 2015 Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated venture delivers not only one of the most intricate stories that the subgenre has to offer but any genre at all.

The film centers around the pessimistic Michael, an author (among many other things) increasingly bored with everything in his life — his marriage, his work, conversations with other people; the list goes on. That all changes when Michael meets Lisa Hesselman (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a vibrant woman who brings something entirely new to his life: excitement. This stop-motion picture centers around this relationship and whether this new love interest in Michael’s life is here for the long haul.

The animation in this film is beautiful, as one would expect from Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson. However, it’s quite creepy, too, as the film uses puppets for the stop-motion, which really hammers home the drabness that Michael experiences on a day-to-day basis.

Kaufman is one of the most brilliant directors and writers of this era, having worked on the likes of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” — for which he won an Academy Award — and “Synecdoche, New York.” His unbelievable mind always sprouts incredible ideas, and “Anomalisa” is no exception. One of his sparks of genius in this particular work was to only use three voice actors to make Michael’s depression even clearer for viewers. That’s right, three!

Thewlis voices Michael, Leigh voices Lisa and Tom Noonan voices everyone else. Even with Nooman voicing over 40 characters, it’s mind-blowing how different and intricate each one is — it’s a sign of generational writing. It’s hard enough to make characters sound different, but with so many having the same voice, it begs the question: Why on earth does Kaufman make this unique artistic choice? The answer can be found by considering Michael’s view of existence.

For Michael, everything seems drab — including everyone around him. Everyone, excluding Lisa and Michael, has the same face and voice (thanks, Noonan), so, for the viewers, they all appear practically identical, too.

Well, except for Lisa.

Her character is the only one that has a different voice to Michael and the viewers. Though it’s easy to pick up on the artists’ intent, this ambitious and all-out effort drives home the point that Lisa is like no one Michael has ever been around; she’s an “Anomalisa.”

What a weird title, right? It’s got a beautiful ring to it and, by itself, is a fantastic title, but the explanation for it could not be better. When Lisa and Michael are lying in bed together one night, she talks about learning the word “anomaly” from one of Michael’s books. Michael responds with a simple one-word answer combining her name and the new word she learned: “Anomalisa.” 

So pretty.

The film itself tackles various complex issues, which, yes, makes for a great and layered film — but man, is it scary. Existential crises are everywhere.

The joy of finding something new brightens both the film and Michael’s character when he comes across Lisa. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, this wears off. When Lisa starts to sound like everyone else (Noonan is inevitable), Michael starts to distance himself from her. It’s tragic and brutal to watch how Michael’s depression and loneliness prevent him from finding ever-lasting happiness.

Marriage is also negatively portrayed in “Anomalisa”. It’s clear that Michael and his wife are not happy together. He has little enthusiasm for the relationship, or even for the child they have together, prompting him to pursue an ex-girlfriend, and then Lisa.

Most people dream of finding that person to spend the rest of their life with, but what if that person never shows up? Questions like these, while scary, are requisite and grounded and help make this film terrifying for all of the romantics out there. Kaufman doesn’t care!

He also doesn’t care about anyone that’s scared of stop-motion sex scenes. A scene that is absolutely insane. Nothing can prepare anyone for it. Wanting to include a scene with another level of intimacy and desire is completely understandable, but society could really benefit from never seeing that, Kaufman.

Another part of the film involves Michael, amid a bad dream, being called down to the basement of a hotel where he meets with the manager. This is one of the few parts of the film that seems unnecessary — and it’s remarkably tedious. Dream sequences are difficult to pull off, especially when the dreams are initially portrayed as being set in the real world (the revelation usually leaves viewers frustrated). This one falls into that trap and simply does not work. It redundantly drives home the same themes that are present throughout the rest of the film and could have just been left out entirely.

Regardless, Kaufman delivers an emotional, lonely and existential film. It’s harrowing and depressing, but ultimately, necessary and realistic. One of the rare, adult-centric stop-motion films, “Anomalisa” is proof that this subgenre (and animation in general, too) will always be so much more than just a genre for kids.

About the Contributor
Emma Liu
Emma Liu, Deputy Design Editor
Emma Liu is a second-year behavioral neuroscience and design major. She is currently working as the deputy design editor for The News. Originally from Philadelphia, Emma loves to collect sonny angels, volunteer at local orgs and find good food in her free time.
More to Discover