When it comes to animated films, too often award season is just big studios facing off with family-friendly fare and safe sequels. This year that included Frozen 2, Toy Story 4, How To Train Your Dragon 3 and The Secret Life of Pets 2. Critically heralded stop-motion studio LAIKA broke from the pack with the non-sequel The Missing Link, which is a charming—albeit problematic—adventure. However, the very best animation this award season has to offer are two wildly original films from Netflix: Klaus and I Lost My Body.
I first sang the praises of Klaus when it hit Netflix ahead of the holidays. Directed by Sergio Pablos, this rollicking adventure unfurls a bold re-imagining of the origins of Santa Claus. But rather than centering on the mythical toy-giver, it follows a young, selfish, entitled brat named Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), who’s kicked out of the cozy comforts of his father’s wealth so he might prove himself as the new postmen of a far-flung, frigid, and feud-frenzied hellhole called Smeerensburg.
With plenty of snark and an undeniable charisma, Jesper is reminiscent of the cocky anti-hero at the center of one of Disney’s most undervalued gems, The Emperor’s New Groove. With whines and a frustrated sputters, Schwartzman brings a welcomed saltiness that heightens the expected sweetness of holiday movies. Much like many A Christmas Carol, Klaus presents a charming tale of a selfish sinner who is inspired by the spirit of the season and redeemed through newfound goodwill toward men. Then on top of all of this, Pablos and his team have engineered a groundbreaking new form of hand-drawn animation that makes this movie look like it was molded from living light. It’s a beautiful film visually, thematically, and emotionally. So much so that when my giddy nieces asked to watch it three days in a row leading up to Christmas, I’m fairly certain I was even more excited than they were. That Klaus has been ignored by one award body after another is absolutely mystifying to me, especially in a year where any film that’s not a sequel might stand out on that alone!
Faring far better is I Lost My Body (A.K.A. J’ai perdu mon corps). The feature directorial debut of Jérémy Clapin, this French drama was snatched up by Netflix following its world premiere as part of the Cannes Film Festival’s Semaine de la Critique last spring. Ahead of its qualifying theatrical run in the US, this intriguing animated adventure hit festivals around the globe, gathering buzz along the way. It’s been stacking up nominations this award season, even scoring New York Film Critics Circle Awards’ honor for Best Animated Film. (Maybe Klaus should have toured!) But what’s it all about? It’s about a dismembered hand trying to find its way home.
That’s a premise both ghastly and romantic. Yet, it’s one we’ve seen again and again—though often with a lovable dog or a clever cat instead of a severed body part. Still, the concept is the same. The story begins with the hand lying on the ground, it’s wrist ragged at the wound. Inexplicably, it wriggles to life. Fingers work as hands and feet, motoring it across tiled floors, scaling it up walls and into gutters. Lost, alone, and without a voice, the hand has no friends. Even the rats it encounters turn on it. So, it pushes on from one precarious position to the next (broken glass, a snapping dog, a rushing subway train), desperately seeking where it belongs.
There’s a macabre sense of humor to the hand’s journey. While it is the film’s hero—in a sense—Clapin never loses sight of how unnerving it is to watch this Thing putter along in otherwise mundane scenes. It’s unsettling yet undeniably amusing to watch the hand clamor up the ribs of a dangling medical skeleton, then scramble around its skull to hide from prying eyes. But most remarkable is how Clapin manages to evoke emotion with a severed limb, despite its lack of mouth or eyes. It’s all in the animation, which has a pensive gravity. It’s found in the physicality of a furtive finger stretched out in exploration. The frightened scuttle after a rat snaps. The sense of longing as fingers reach for a past it can no longer touch. Oh yes, this hand remembers.
There’s an element of whodunit to this strange tale, in that the hand is on the hunt for the body it lost. But whose hand is not the mystery. In black-and-white flashbacks, we see the hand—recognizable by its distinctive mole—on a young boy named Naoufel, who dreams of being an astronaut and a concert pianist. The hand reminisces about Naoufel’s rosy childhood of classical music, caring parents, and out-of-this-world ambitions. We feel the hand’s ache for him and for the way things were. Which leads us to Naoufel.
This is his story too. While the hand is dashing about in a frantic search for him, in-color flashbacks introduce us to grown Naoufel, a twenty-something who is kind of a trainwreck, but at this point a two-handed trainwreck. He’s a bad roommate, the kind who would walk in on intimate moments. He’s a worse pizza delivery guy, showing up late and with pizza smashed to smithereens. He’s listless and isolated, until he meets her, Gabrielle. She inspires a passion in him. In a desperate—but troubling—bid to win her, he pries his way into her life, and in doing so finds a job he likes and is good at, a home to call his own, and maybe a love to be his life. But where Naoufel thinks his actions are the grand gestures of romantic comedies, Gabrielle does not. And neither does the film.
Like his hand, Naoufel is relentlessly chasing a person he thinks will make him whole. He thinks that if he can just latch on to Gabrielle, all his pain and past will be behind him. When she is repulsed, we’re not meant to think her cold, but sensible. She will not be abandoned by the plot for this rejection. She will be his wake-up call, and ultimately his witness to a profound leap of faith.
Watching the film the first time, I was in awe of how Clapin’s animation style—which looks like thoughtful tracings of photographs—evoked such intense emotion and captured such sensational fantasy. I was riveted by a severed hand scampering around in search of a place to belong. I was disturbed by Naoufel’s juvenile idea of romance, worried for Gabrielle, and confounded on how their story would tie to this traveling hand. The second time was an even richer experience. Understanding where this journey would end, I was able to appreciate the foil of Naoufel and his hand, their shared pain and desires. I was able to see how Clapin recognizes that like this hand, Naoufel is also fascinating yet unsettling. He is a thing lost and flailing. But in the end, both the hero and his hand grasp a poignant realization about when to hang on and when to let go.
Both Klaus and I Lost My Body offer unconventional anti-hero stories told through unique and captivating animation. Whatever all these award bodies say, these movies are magnificent and highly rewatchable. The good news for you is they are both available on Netflix, right now.
Note: I Lost My Body is available as subtitled and overdubbed. I’ve watched both, and think both are beautiful.
Header Image Source: Netflix