Welcome to the Hellish world of Mad God (2022)
★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Directed by Phil Tippett
The living master of stop-motion animation, Phil Tippett has finished his 35-year-old passion project, Mad God. It is a technical and visual triumph, an astounding achievement of effort, care, and craftsmanship. Notably, Mad God is also full of yucky puppets. It is also devoid of a clear narrative story. It resembles the visions of Hell by Hieronymous Bosch put into animated stop motion.
Simply put: Mad God is surreal, profane, disturbing, confusing… and FREAKY.
This HAD to be part of the inspiration for Mad God.
My recommendation comes with a lot of caveats. Don’t look for any real story in this film. It is like a nightmare in motion, lying somewhere on the fringes of your imagination. It is a stream-of-consciousness melange of pure madness. Some of this work will repulse you. Some of it will inspire you. And more than its fare share will perplex you. And only one living man could pull this off, and it took him half a lifetime to complete it.
His name: Phil Tippett.
Tippett is best known for his work on The Empire Strikes Back, Robocop, Return of the Jedi, Starship Troopers, and Jurassic Park is the inheritor of the legacy left behind by Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen. Masters of practical stop-motion animatronics, these artists kindled the fantastic visions of exotic creatures for decades of moviegoers.
He is the man who gave us the Imperial Walkers, ED-209, The Brain Bug, and the massive Tyrannosaurus Rex animatronic. At his zenith, nobody could do what he could do. His sense of texture, motion, and perspective is unrivaled. But by the 1990s, the need for his services evaporated with the advent of high-end visual effects, beginning with Jurassic Park. Irony can be cruel, but practical effects have gone the way of his Jurassic Park dinosaurs. Lovingly remembered, but rendered largely irrelevant in today’s filmmaking.
Mad God was a Tippett Studio workshop project started in 1987 and was eventually shelved when a discouraged Tippett started questioning his value in the movie industry. He was coaxed back to the animation table by a number of his pupils, who found his footage and puppets in the shelving of his studio. In a show of respect and love for his work, a number of animators in his studio volunteered their weekends to help finish this vision, a true labor of love.
Starting in 2014, he started releasing segments of work as it was getting completed as three short films. As such, the film does feel like it is segmented into three half-hour arcs. The film still has a throughline though as it follows a bizarre journey, in continual motion, passing many a spectacular set piece, but not lingering long enough to stay and analyze the moment. In 2022, these films were stitched together for this tour-de-force feature presentation, Tippett’s first as a director.
The world of Mad God is a post-apocalyptic and incredibly bleak bombed-out landscape. We follow a gas mask-wearing soldier descends in a bathysphere/elevator into the bowels of the Earth, assigned to a secret mission that, to be honest, is pretty vague. This unnamed soldier passes through a bizarre through-the-looking-glass hellscape, populated with vile demons and battle-scarred fields of wreckage and waste. The soldier observes but does not interact with any of the strange denizens. His plans apparently fall apart, as he is eventually captured. I am assuming it to be a he, but there is something about what happens after the soldier gets captured that may prove me wrong. To say more would be to spoil the story, that is, if you can call it a story.
There is no dialogue. No exposition. All of this film is raw imagery and sound. My advice, turn off your left brain and let your right brain take over. Maybe even partake in your favorite mind-altering substance of choice. This is strange art in motion. The meanings of this art are up to your interpretation. Certainly there are suggestions within the imagery, but you are invited to make of this what you will. A cautionary note, this movie is no Dark Crystal. The visuals are more than merely dark, this is true horror. More shocking and nasty than any western animated film to my memory.(There are some Japanese Anime films that will give it a run for the money.)
You’ll know if this is a movie for you. If you are a fan of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Yellow Submarine, or Eraserhead, you will probably really dig this movie. In a way, it may have more in common with music videos than a traditional narrative plot. This movie was meant to make you FEEL something. But, what that something is would be hard to describe. If abstract and surreal movies aren’t your bag, then your mileage may vary.
Mad God was released for us at the Overlook Film Festival, but I was unable to screen it there. I was able to watch it streaming as it is currently playing on Shudder. It is not rated, but is certainly a fairly hard R, even if all the imagery is animated puppetry. It is animated, but children under 13 will probably be traumatized by what they see, and even some adults may be.