Directed by Adam Elliot
Short film review by Joseph Banham
I can’t tell you how excited I was to see Adam Elliot’s new short film, Ernie Biscuit. The Australian filmmaker is known for his wonderfully touching, darkly comic stop-motion animation. His work first came to my immediate attention a few years back when I saw his debut feature film, Mary and Max (2009), an emotionally stunning film about two unlikely pen pals that embodies the very meaning of the word bittersweet. Elliot’s work is instantly identifiable by having the simple animation style of The California Raisins mixed with the heartbreaking relationships and adult themes of a groundbreaking drama. Ernie Biscuit is no exception.
Set in the sixties, Ernie is a reclusive, deaf taxidermist living in Paris. His whole life has been plagued by misfortune as is such the case for all characters in Adam Elliot’s work. A very nasty bullying instance involving a firecracker and an outhouse left a young Ernie bereft of his hearing, turning him completely mute. His only childhood solace was connecting with Nanette, an energetic Jewish girl on his street with whom Ernie fantasized about running away with to Venice and getting married.Their young romance was cut mercilessly short by the invasion of Germany during the Second World War, and Ernie’s childhood sweetheart was never seen again.
One day, when a dead pigeon shows up at his taxidermy shop’s doorstep, a slightly inebriated Ernie gets the sudden urge to go to Venice. Structurally, comparisons could be drawn from this setup, of an ageing loner setting off to another country so he can fulfill a childhood promise to his love, to Pixar’s Up, only Ernie’s tale is told with a lot less sentimentality. He packs his bag and boards a plane with his pet duck Edith, whom he originally gave to Nanette as a present. However, due to a mix-up at the airport, the pair accidentally get on a plane that takes them to the deserted Australian outback. Will Ernie ever find the bravery needed to achieve happiness?
The film doesn’t actually begin with Ernie’s story; instead, Elliot chooses to show the audience the unfortunate set of circumstances that led to the recently deceased pigeon to end up on his doorstep. The ill-fated pigeon, through no fault of its own, finds itself being knocked out and thrown off a gargoyle, hurtling towards its unpleasant demise. It’s a grim opening that sets up the main idea of the film. The pigeon, like Ernie, is a hapless victim of circumstance; it has been quite literally knocked off its perch by an unfair world and left to rot in the street. Erni has gone through similarly demoralising experiences, leaving him alone and hopeless. The film opens with a rather down to earth quote: “Some days you’re the windscreen… some days the insect”. It is safe to say that Ernie spends most of his days being the latter.
All of Adam Elliot’s films thus far have been very similar in their subject matter and visual style. Ernie Biscuit, just like his previous work, is shot in black and white. The monochrome world is perfect for the filmmaker’s mode of storytelling, which often sees eccentric, unique characters plagued by harsh reality and a dull, pessimistic world.
The animation strives for simplicity, never attempting to show off with any grand set pieces or effects. The method of animation helps balance the much darker points in the script that remain very serious but are eased through with touches of humour. The amount of movement in the frame is never complex; the compositions often feature only one key action in the shot. The designs of the characters are wonderfully odd, bordering on grotesque, which fits well with the warts and all tone. The film never tries to convince its audience that what they are seeing aren’t clay puppets, allowing instead for the story alone to appeal to an older audience. What the basic animation technique and quirky character models end up achieving is something that resembles a children’s storybook—a film that is told through a series of uncluttered tableaux rather than complex camera movement through meticulously detailed sets.
The film also relies heavily on narration, provided, in this case, by previous Elliot collaborator John Flaus, whose smooth, deep voice ties the film together beautifully, once again giving the effect of having a charming children’s tale read to you.
It is the juxtaposition of the seemingly child-friendly style and the unflinchingly heavy themes that define Adam Elliot’s work. His films are so effective because, with the film looking and sounding the way it does, the viewer expects the characters to be able to bounce back from any situation and face adversity with bright optimism. This is, of course, not the case for characters such as Ernie, who finds the punishingly unsympathetic nature of the world all too real. The contrast brings a magnifying glass up to the film’s ideas of loneliness and isolation in a way that stands out way more than they would in a conventional drama. It also makes the film feel completely unpretentious; its unassuming voice never comes across as trying to manipulate the audience into a tearful reaction with its characters’ numerous tales of woe.
The choice of music is endearingly upbeat and rousing; the film makes ample use of the cheery orchestral piece Eye Level. The triumphant 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky is later used in the climactic scene to hilarious effect.
There is something refreshingly honest about the film, never shying away from presenting Ernie’s hardships as bluntly as possible. The writing never attempts to be overtly poetic; Ernie’s alcoholism is shown with straightforward sincerity, and a later character’s depression and isolation is covered in similar fashion. Yet, it's this very approach that coats the distressing situations in such dark comedy. The result is a film that is completely relatable as well as oddly comforting. Its twenty-minute running time may mean that it doesn’t feature the same calibre of a fully developed, emotionally turbulent relationship as Mary and Max, but it still delivers a more than satisfying mix of joy and pathos. The way Elliot illustrates his world presents a lovingly open message to the audience; life can at times be horrendously tough, especially for some unlucky few, but with perseverance and courage, anyone can succeed. Be the windscreen, not the insect.