If you haven’t done so before, we’d recommend watching each of these brief shorts as you go through. The shortest is 2:32 and the longest is around eight minutes.
Writer-director Michaël Dudok de Wit premiered his debut feature film last year at Cannes – a fairly routine experience of course, apart from the crucial fact that this supposed novice was already one of the world’s more revered filmmakers.
After releasing four highly accomplished theatrical shorts over 14 years, Dudok de Wit’s 80-minute The Red Turtle came with feverish anticipation. That it was largely produced with Studio Ghibli certainly helped; two years after Hayao Miyazaki’s (now reversed) decision to bow out with The Wind Rises, and the studio’s subsequent hiatus after When Marnie Was There, the longtime animation icon had made themselves a tantalising name again. It got better: Isao Takahata, Ghibli co-founder and legendary director of Grave of the Fireflies, would be a creative supervisor. As a comparison, imagine if the great Don Hertzfeldt got funding for a feature with the supervision of Brad Bird. Now stop drooling.
The Red Turtle has proved its critical and commercial worth after only a year since premiering – a rare feat for a non-mainstream animation, which could ordinarily take far longer to even reach distribution. Dudok de Wit gained his third Oscar nomination, in addition to an Annie, a Cannes Un Certain Regard special prize, and (another rare feat) a Golden Globe nomination not for animation, but for Best Foreign Film. The simple fact is that those exposed to Dudok de Wit’s scant cinematic works tend, with few exceptions, to fall in love with them.
The most immediately striking feature of Dudok de Wit’s work is its relative visual simplicity. His character design is straightforward and economic, and his backgrounds distinctly uncluttered; this, combined with his consciously tactile use of inks and watercolours, provides the basis of the Dudokian style. It’s clearly appealing: sweet and childlike, directly reminiscent of picture books (another of Dudok de Wit’s income streams) – and as with Aardman, you can practically see the fingerprints.
Such fundamental appeal has certainly helped the animator find acclaim, but the complexity beneath the surface is what marks him as a master. Tom Sweep (1992, embedded above) was Dudok de Wit’s first major foray into theatrical filmmaking, and sees him at his most basic, but it already demonstrates that his style is no mere lip-service to hand-craft; it is an expression of intense love and respect for animation as a medium. Details we could take for granted, such as the timing of the flying litter or the individual motions of a crowd of people, are shown to us with an unassuming confidence; they are effortless slapstick tricks after rigorous hours in front of the mirror.
This idea is perfectly expressed through Dudok de Wit’s use of lines. The motion in his films is generally fairly simplistic, or at least as simplistic as “good” animation gets. There is a stylised jerkiness, his acting based on exaggeration; characters tend, in Tom Sweep and followup The Monk and the Fish (above), to be drawn pose-to-pose with very little follow-through. It is not the higher-budget, self-consciously nuanced fluidity of a Disney movie, or even a higher-tier Ghibli. But Dudok de Wit is not trying to approach a kind of fantasy verisimilitude; his access to characters’ emotions, and higher themes (insofar as he bothers with these, of which more later), is through the sheer magic of style. This is the key to Dudok de Wit: animation as existential metaphor, the notion that if a confluence of lines can create something much greater, so too can the non-drawn, quite real, elements of the everyday connect, and transcend. By emphasising the simplistic, he implies a higher plane.
The Monk and the Fish (1996) introduces this theme to Dudok de Wit’s oeuvre in wonderfully madcap fashion. If Tom Sweep was an experiment in Tex Avery slapstick, then The Monk and the Fish is the moment the director’s reverence for east Asian Buddhist line-drawing first mutates into a kind of career statement. In a nutshell, the short follows a monk desperately trying to catch a fish; after numerous wild attempts (those Avery, and Chuck Jones, comparisons run deep here), the monk chases the fish out of the monastery, across what seems to be the world, and out of terrestrial space altogether, into a kind of transcendent togetherness. Which isn’t quite the ending you expect. But it’s important to note how closely the film’s clear philosophical angle not just suits, but reflects its audio-visual style. Dudok de Wit may claim to eschew statements, but if Buddhist ink-work represents a calm respect for the process of creation, this film – and all its loving effort – shows just how deeply the process can be applied, unassumingly elevating something as humble as a slapstick cartoon. For such a concise piece, The Monk and the Fish is in that sense a remarkably complete text.
Father and Daughter (2000) takes Dudok de Wit’s emphasis on lines to even greater lengths. Divested of his familiar bright colours, this washed-out masterpiece uses a higher-contrast palette to evoke both an emotional starkness, and to elegantly highlight the rhythmic circularity of time; where we often associate pathetic fallacy with strong, tempestuous emotions, here Dudok de Wit keeps his atmosphere calm and clean, creating a sense of melancholic tranquility. We experience the protagonist’s full lifetime in six minutes, but we understand – as with the surprisingly varied use of a bicycle-wheel motif – the simple beauty of this process.
The inks are reminiscent again of ancient Buddhist illustrations, and the themes have a distinctly Samsāric flavour, though this particular story is, again, far less obviously didactic than any particular spiritual teaching. The director’s concern is mood rather than constructed allegory. Father and Daughter is a great tearjerker, precisely because Dudok de Wit keeps it focused so carefully on experience rather than interpretation. The film is tonally contemplative, but there is no contemplation. As with his entire filmography, including The Red Turtle, it is pointedly devoid of dialogue. And so, as ever, he expresses his characters through their movements – the more objectively observable flip-side of thought, and indeed speech – as the Daughter literally cycles, and occasionally walks, through a full life right to the end.
Yet though Father and Daughter, which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short, is positioned as the “serious” one of Dudok de Wit’s four cinema shorts, he still makes sure to indulge in a little slapstick for good measure. At the end of the film, the Daughter – now an elderly woman – cycles to the shore where she last saw her father, decades previous. She disembarks the bike, pops the kickstand, and leaves it. She walks a moment, and the bike falls over. She turns around, patiently lifts it, drops it again, lifts it, re-engages the kickstand, and steadies the bike. Job done. She starts to leave again… and the bike falls over. She looks at it briefly, perhaps in rebuke, and leaves it.
The symbolism is obvious; it should not be a drastic spoiler to the uninitiated to point out that, shortly after leaving her bike lying on the ground, the Daughter passes away. Yet despite the clear sadness of the implication, the act itself is really quite funny; recognisable, indeed – with a deadpan European fatalism – archly typical. It would be a grave misinterpretation to suggest Dudok de Wit is laughing in the face of death; instead he underlines yet again the profound link between movement and expression. Going beyond heavy-handed death symbolism, the collapse of the bike bears more of a relation to life; even before the ultimate moment of gravitas, a silly moment is ready to come belly-flopping in.
There is a highly worthwhile 2006 TV interview in which Michaël Dudok de Wit dismisses any notion of deliberate philosophising in his films, before discussing his own theory of animation:
There’s levels of movement: you have the movements of the character, and you have the movement of the story […] one image, one point of view, and suddenly you jump to a completely new landscape and that’s a movement by itself. And of course you’ve got camera movements, and finally you have the movements of the composition […] And all these interact together; they all enhance each other, or they go against each other […] and I think that that’s what an animator ideally likes to play with. He likes to play with all these movements individually and bring them together. I suppose not unlike an orchestra or a band, where the different instruments all have their own movements, but together they enhance each other…
It’s worth quoting at such length because it not only describes the basics of animation, and its unique appeal, but it also inadvertently reveals that same worldview Dudok de Wit pretends is merely hidden in his work. If there is one thematic takeaway from all these straightforward, perfectly-formed little presentations of constructed movement, it is that confluence and connection are a surprisingly and profoundly fundamental basis for expression. One line in motion implies an entire emotion, and when taken in tandem with another line it gains dimension. Even when movement is not actually present – as with Dudok de Wit’s beloved Buddhist illustrations – the logic still holds. Lines connect, combine, and create something else. The Dutchman’s most recent short, 2006’s The Aroma of Tea, is his purest expression yet of such notions: a small dot, assumed to be a tea particle, travels through a series of ink swirls before reaching its destination. The animation appears completely rudimentary; motion here, as within the conclusion of The Monk and the Fish, is less a functioning end in itself and more a means to creating meaning.
So it is that a slapstick attitude, for Dudok de Wit, is infused with layers upon layers of complex understanding. In that sense, the man transcends style and becomes a genuine master; for him, animation is not just a medium through which one can tell stories, but a synecdoche for how we interact. The bizarre thing is how little he appears to be trying. All he needs is a little movement.