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The God, the Bad and the Ugly

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Mad God (2021)

Humanity is moldy on the inside and ugly on the outside, which isn’t news to anyone. Phil Tippett’s “Mad God” has plenty of both mold and ugliness, plus blood and viscera and the contents of the digestive tract, lovingly rendered through the full resources of the animator’s craft. Mr. Tippett’s Stygian odyssey, a film that has been in the works for decades, employs models and some C.G.I. and a smattering of live action; but mainly tells its story through stop-motion animation, the venerable field in which Mr. Tippett’s skills are nonpareil in Hollywood. Propelled by unseen hands, a cast of critters long of fang and foul of breath prowl the circles of “Mad God’s” post-human hell in that slightly jerky over-cranked gait that always conveys the infinite patience of the animator and the fragile mortality of the puppet character, stop-motion’s mix of divinity and disgust. And drollery, since the heavyweight visuals and colossal suffering don’t stop the film cracking a few sprightly jokes from the pit, a distinctly American rather than European damnation.

Mr. Tippett has said there’s no storyline here beyond dream logic, but “Mad God’s” sub-plots and bestiaries seem to be connected fairly directly; the threads just go wandering off on tangents within tangents before circling back to base. At some point after the Tower of Babel is flattened by a wrathful deity, The Last Man (incarnated by filmmaker Alex Cox, flaunting the rococo fingernails of Beelzebub) lowers a puppet agent down through the strata of the desolated world like a coal miner going down 10 miles. This agent – the credits call it “The Assassin” – is equipped with a suitcase bomb, which suggests revolutionary intent. Once at the lower depths, it traipses through a rancid vivisection clinic, some form of nuclear war and heavyweight Holocaust symbolism, but at the point of completing its mission is attacked by a monster and dragged off to be vivisected itself. Which might all be part of the plan, since The Assassin’s body seems to contain the mewling larval cosmic seed of the next cycle.

Mr. Tippett has name checked writers Dante and Milton as inspiration, and you could add painters Francis Bacon and Otto Dix while you were in the fine art wing; but in Hollywood terms stop-motion work always calls upon Ray Harryhausen, and this film's ghastly mundanities are adjacent to Terry Gilliam, too. Or more than adjacent: Two creatures crop up that look like a gloved hand holding an eyeball, close kin to the aliens that Graham Chapman drops in on during “Monty Python's Life of Brian,” still looking perplexed here when someone barges in behind them. There’s a laser battle from “The Terminator” and some “2001: A Space Odyssey” monoliths, and cheesy lounge muzak over an interlude in a temporary paradise as part of a versatile soundtrack by Mr. Cox’s regular collaborator Dan Wool. From all this mire emerges a solid moral code, that the powerful are always to be brought low. Early on, a row of giant figures are fried in electric chairs, voiding their vast bowels in great waterfalls of stool: the Titans of old now crapping in a bucket.

The film’s long road to release may have spurred a couple of its black jokes about the world of employment, such as a cooperative of faceless laborers going to great lengths to build huge skyscraper slabs which then topple straight onto the workforce and mulch them to paste. Elsewhere two Harryhausen-esque bipeds pass the time endlessly clouting each other on the head with spades, until a third creature showing all the signs of being their boss puts a stop to it by electrocuting their brains and making them return to shoveling ordure pointlessly from one pile to another. Life in miniature.


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