French Stop-Motion Animation Tackles the Bad Dream of Colonialism and its Individualistic Ramifications.
DIRECTED BY EMMA DE SWAEF AND MARC JAMES ROELS/2018
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: SEPTEMBER 24, 2019/GKIDS
Trying to explain a dream is more often than not a futile gesture. But, let’s give it our best shot, shall we?
Not quite a feature film but too long to be conventionally considered a short, the bizarrely, lovingly handcrafted world This Magnificent Cake! (Ce magnifique gâteau!) is a trip no viewer will soon forget. A dark history lesson of sorts, this odd animated anthology tells the tale of five different characters in its attempt to get at the oppressive heart of 19th century Colonialism in Africa. Through the subtle antics of the fuzzy, one-of-a-kind handmade dolls of co-director Emma De Swaef, the film takes us on a meditative internal tour of sorts; the kind that is usually accompanied with a high fever.
The five characters are each very different, yet share in a certain dismal, trapped fatalism. For a Pygmy dwarf made to serve as a bellhop in a luxury hotel, his curse is displacement. For a proud clarinet player who is publicly crushed when the king requests he stop playing mid-performance, he also becomes displaced, albeit from a place of crushing rejection and isolation. Elsewhere, a portly explorer finds a deep connection with a large, evolving snail. The king himself, who would like to acquire swaths of Africa for his empire and personal satisfaction, finds himself in an intimidating and freaky dream. Different stations then, yes. As Kubrick once stated, they are all equal now.
Directors De Swaef and Marc James Roels masterfully succeed in cultivating the cerebral dread of an immersive dreamscape, with a strong side order of quietly anxiety-ridden gloom. If it sounds like this is not necessary a Gkids release that kids will love, I can verify that from personal experience. For my three oldest kids, the oldest of which is fourteen, This Magnificent Cake! has become a notorious flashpoint in terms of movies they never hope to see again. I suspect they’ll outgrow that.
For me, it’s a rather brilliant mood piece, coming from a wholly original place of non-commercial artistic vision and concern for humanity’s present state. As people abroad experienced in the not-so-distant past, selfishness and subjugation are the solitary sins that continue to assail us. This weird, stop-motion look into the small, personal, speculative fallouts of Old-World Colonialism resonates primarily for that very reason. Also, the big snail with the human face is pretty freaky, too.
Gkids Blu-ray edition of This Magnificent Cake! is a delicious gift for fans of interesting and bold animation. Besides an informative if fairly brief English language interview with co-director Marc James Roels, the disc also houses two other esoteric short films well worth checking out. Both are stop-motion animation, one of which is by the same creative team as the feature presentation. “Oh Willy…”, by De Swaef and Roels, is actually more actively bizarre than Cake!, if one can imagine that. Employing the same odd ennui and physical puppetry, “Oh Willy…” (2012) grapples with deep-seated personal loss on a base level, with no shortage of innocent but formidable puppet nudity and some breastfeeding. My kids thought this was quite strange in a bad way. In time, they’ll learn that they are wrong. May they never fit the profiles of the poor, lonely anthropomorphic animal drones of “The Burden” (directed by Niki Lindroth von Bahr, 2017), wherein self-concious carp in a dingy hotel express concern about their bad skin, and baboons working a late-night call center grapple with their lot in life. All in all, Gkids has done an excellent job of pairing a few solid bonuses with This Magnificent Cake!.
Not many words are spoken in this five-course serving of Cake!, but what is spoken is spoken primarily in French. (Gkids’ Blu-ray offers English language subtitles). And for wide swaths of moviegoers- even those who speak French- the film will feel very foreign. For adventurous viewers, particular aficionados of contemporary global animation, this is indeed a Magnificent, dreamy thing.