by Anthony Harrison
You may not recognize Don Hertzfeldt’s name, but his work is the most compelling animation of the 21st Century.
Hertzfeldt first caught my attention when I was a freshman in high school. My friend Jack showed me “Rejected,” a nine-and-a-half-minute odyssey portraying a struggling artist’s creative collapse. I felt an immediate affinity to the off-beat style — a surreal, satirical mashup, simultaneously dark and hilarious, philosophical and absurd. One-liners like “My spoon is too big,” and “I’m feeling fat and sassy!” entered my obscurely allusive lexicon.
Aesthetically, Hertzfeldt juxtaposes stick figures with inventive practical effects, like shockwaves of crumpling paper crashing in on an anthropomorphic rabbit, resulting in a surprisingly distinctive style.
I later learned this quirky short had been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 2000, when Hertzfeldt was only 23.
“Rejected” sat on my mental back burner until 2012, when I bought Hertzfeldt’s two boxsets: an anthology of his early work including “Rejected,” and the short trilogy It’s Such a Beautiful Day.
I discovered I’d been laughing with a complete genius.
“Rejected” may be the quintessential Hertzfeldt short, but his 1997 student film “Lily and Jim” — the story of a blind date full of fumbles and missed connections — resembles a condensed Annie Hall in its poignant awkwardness, representing a shift between wacky apprentice and wunderkind auteur.
“The Meaning of Life” — a 2005 Sundance Film Festival selection — takes his deceptively simple technique to a higher plane with its meticulous multitudes of jiggly stick people and pans of shimmering star fields, composed from hundreds of points of light, rotated by hand.
And then there’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day.
The three shorts — “Everything Will Be OK,” “I’m So Proud of You” and “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” — collectively tell the story of Bill, an everyman mysteriously deteriorating in relative youth. It’s an existential masterpiece, morbid yet comical. I’m unashamed to admit it moves me to tears. It’s Such a Beautiful Day stands alongside Fantasia as my favorite animated film.
Following “Rejected,” Hertzfeldt maintained cult status, with a memorable “couch gag” for The Simpsons as his closest flirtation with the mainstream. Then, his first foray with digital animation, “World of Tomorrow” in 2015, again put him in the running to win an Oscar this year.
Typical Hertzfeldt brilliance: Four-year-old Emily receives a visit from a future clone of herself, who presses her to appreciate the present. It’s visually stunning and features some of the best voice acting ever coaxed from a toddler.
Again, the Academy passed over Hertzfeldt. But hopefully a new generation will admire his talent until his next inevitable nomination.
Watch “World of Tomorrow” and It’s Such a Beautiful Day on Netflix.