There are certain stories that only animation can tell properly: the tale of a roomful of toys reuniting with their owner, a clownfish’s journey to find his son, or a version of Hamlet featuring lions. Now you can add to that list the metaphysical journey of a five-year-old girl and her future clone to restore a broken identity.
Don Hertzfeldt is quite simply the greatest, or at least the most inventive, animator you’ve never heard of. The creative geniuses behind Disney, Aardman, Laika and Ghibli dominate mainstream animation, but meanwhile, Hertzfeldt has been carving his own path, creating unique worlds of his own.
His cult appeal flickered into the mainstream consciousness two years ago when he animated a Simpsons couch gag and released World of Tomorrow, both of which we wrote about at the time. Hot on their heels, the self-proclaimed “2x Oscar loser” has dived deeper into the unknown with episode two of his burgeoning series – this edition subtitled The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts.
Once again constructed around the ramblings of his five-year-old niece Julia, World of Tomorrow certainly has less of a snappy elevator pitch to it than any of the iconic animations mentioned above. It’s probably worth reading our previous article and watching episode one first, but this new release can stand on its own without any prior knowledge.
Where episode one delivered a grand vision of the future, both blissfully utopian and savagely dystopian, episode two zeroes in on the idea of memory and how it defines who we are. The little girl Emily Prime (voiced by Hertzfeldt’s niece Julia) is visited by Emily 6 (Winona Mae), a future clone of herself, whose entire identity depends on her and her memories. She is broken, and can only be restored by sharing in the original Emily’s memories in a beautiful, surreal, dreamlike journey.
The pair travel through an abstract digital dreamscape full of fake plastic trees and anthropomorphised concepts, flitting from memory to memory like a lucid dream. Aptly for this semi-mechanised vision of the future, their backdrops are a primordial soup of throbbing heatmaps and RGB curves, digital expressions of reality given life. This abstract world and its ambitious concepts break down the barriers of reality, memory, language and emotion.
Most of all, episode two unflinchingly explores how memory and age relate to each other by the simple contrast of Emily Prime and her future adult clone, Emily 6. While visiting the “bog of realism” in Emily 6’s mind, Emily Prime uncovers “glimmers of hope” in its waters, which the older Emily “buried long ago when they became too painful to hold onto.” The grim suggestion is that the memories we accumulate as we age come to define how our mind works – in this case, the hopeful memories come to represent failure to the adult Emily, in the process killing off her hope in the future.
Episode two’s final conclusion stands unexpectedly parallel to a recent release, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. The notorious and defining motto of that film was to “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” In comparison, episode two closes with Emily 6 realising that “We cannot live in the past. We have to let it go.”
The consequences of not letting go are taken to their extreme with the portrayal of the future Emily clones, all of whom have adult intelligence but lack any kind of personality, speaking in a flat, affectless tone reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos’ characters. As they are built entirely from past memories of the previous Emily, they have no real identity of their own and, even worse, no real sense of free will. We are all copies of our parents and ancestors in a basic, genetic way, but unlike the Emilys, we are unaware of that at birth. We develop our own lives free from the burden of other people’s memories, whereas the clones have a fixed path winding ahead of them thanks to the memories of their predecessors.
The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts is a tougher watch than the previous episode, focusing closely on one idea and in the process losing some of the breezy fun of zipping around a mad future world. Nevertheless it is still one of the most ambitious films you’ll see this year, animated or not. Hertzfeldt has never been one for straightforward narrative and here he shores up fragments of memory against his ruins, looking for idyllic oases of youthful and childish joy, free from the burden of other people’s thoughts.