When The Simpsons episode Clown in the Dumps aired a year-and-a-half ago, it featured arguably the most bizarre and surreal couch gag to date. Showing the characters as mutated stick figures, it seemingly illustrated how the show will devolve in the years to come. This was the product of Don Hertzfeldt, an animator whose films have garnered him great acclaim and has influenced a generation of animation programs such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force and a recent batch of Pop-Tarts commercials. At the time he was making his Simpsons couch gag, Hertzfeldt was also developing his latest film, World of Tomorrow. The film is nominated for the 2016 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. It has just been made available to stream on Netflix and has also been re-released in theaters as part of the 2016 Oscar Nominated Short Films collection.
The 17-minute short chronicles a young, seemingly impressionable girl named Emily, voiced by Hertzfeldt’s niece Winona Mae, meeting a woman claiming to be from 227 years in the future. The woman, voiced by illustrator Julia Pott, further introduces herself as being an adult third-generation clone of the little girl. The Emily Clone proceeds to take the girl, designated as Emily Prime, on a time traveling journey through key memories in the life of the older woman. It is through this journey that the little girl will witness, through her own wonderment, what will become of humanity and the advancements that will be made in technology. She will also come to see the kind of life one such as the Emily Clone leads and just how different it will be from the one the little girl will likely have in her time.
World of Tomorrow is probably the most fascinating short film one will see. As complex as the film’s narrative is, the story is actually not too hard to follow. This is despite the Emily Clone not talking down to Emily Prime, coming off more like a robot lacking emotion than a being who would be sensitive to the feelings of others. Furthermore, the little girl probably does not understand any thing being explained due to her youth. There is a point in the film where the Emily Clone explains how the information sharing network known as the internet has expanded into a more physical and visual entity called the outernet only for Emily Prime to be more fascinated with being able to draw a triangle with her finger. It’s actually this method of storytelling that allows for viewers to some how sort of get what is going on from start to finish. Trying to explain it in words would make it confusing, and yet Hertzfeldt manages to make it work by playing it out with illustrations.
As one would expect from a Hertzfeldt film, World of Tomorrow is animated primarily with stick figures. Deceptively simple stick figures as they nonetheless are able to evoke character and personality. Even in her monotonic approach, the Emily Clone appears sad and resigned. Emily Prime is bursting with life, squeaking at whatever catches her fancy. Yet all of this manages to be understood in stick figures and not in needing to illustrate full featured expressions with great detail. What sets this film apart from other Hertzfeldt films is the inclusion of digital animation, a first for him. Nevertheless, he manages to keep these simple as well. I imagine they come off as what would probably be the digital equivalent of stick figure drawings, nothing fancy or groundbreaking. And still they look beautiful.
One can actually see the Clown in the Dumps couch gag as a sort of companion piece to World of Tomorrow, and not just because they were made at the same time and even use much of the same animation style. The couch gag illustrates The Simpsons devolving to a point that seems to lack any sort of emotion or feeling. World of Tomorrow has a character from such a future timeline traveling to the past and meeting her ancestor, who is very much alive.
It will be interesting to see how well viewers will appreciate World of Tomorrow. It is a fascinating journey through life in 17-minutes that manages to be both simple and complex, which is a typical trademark of creator Don Hertzfeldt. If one were to compare it with fellow Oscar nominee Sanjay’s Super Team, it would be easy to say that the latter was the more visually impressive and probably far better to understand. But I believe World of Tomorrow would leave a greater impression from its overall presentation.
World of Tomorrow
March 31, 2015
Currently available on Netflix Streaming
Directed by Don Hertzfeldt