There Are No Small Films: In Praise of Don Hertzfeldt’s ‘World of Tomorrow’

world of tomorrow

I’ve seen World of Tomorrow three times since it was released on demand on Vimeo on March 31. Since then, I’ve been debating whether or not I should write about it. Most of what has been written about this 16-minute animated short are raves calling it one of the most amazing things you’ll ever see in your life among other superlatives. Being afraid, as I am, of the power of backlash, I was wondering if writing a glowing review of it would actually help people to turn against it. After a long deliberation with myself, I came to the conclusion that I was a little bit trapped inside my own bubble. How big is the market for animated shorts anyway? My Twitter feed might be raving about World of Tomorrow, but I doubt the “real” world knows much about it. This is all to say that, if my writing about it is going to get a person who wouldn’t have otherwise seen this movie to experience World of Tomorrow, then that’s good enough for me.

Then again, the other reason why I wasn’t sure I should write about World of Tomorrow is that I don’t really know what to say. As good a place as any to start is to say that this is the latest short film by animator Don Hertzfeldt, who just happens to be one of the most exciting and original voices in contemporary animation. His most popular work is a trilogy of animated shorts about a stick figure trapped in a confusin universe. These shorts were packaged as a feature by the name of It’s Such a Beautiful Day, which is available to stream on Netflix right now. He also got some press for guest-directing a surreal couch gag for The Simpsonswhich by the way, was one of the best things to air on television last year.

Actually, the Simpsons gag might be a good entry point if you want to get into Hertzfeldt, and particularly if you want to get into World of Tomorrow, since they both share certain science fiction elements. Considering we’re talking about a 16-minute short, I think it’s better to keep the plot elements of World of Tomorrow to be discovered when you watch it. The very basic way of describing the movie is as the meeting of four year-old Emily (Winona Mae) with her future self (Julia Pott). It is structured as a guided tour of a future that is clearly a way for Hertzfeldt to present as many philosophical, and often scary, ideas about what might be lying in humanity’s future.

Hertzfeldt’s imagination is one of the things that make World of Tomorrow so fascinating. It offers, in 16 minutes, more fruit for thought than most any science fiction movie I have ever seen. But continuing to praise World of Tomorrow on its ideas would be regarding it as a solely intellectual experience when its biggest strength might be purely emotional. Hertzfeldt cast his little niece as young Emily, and as he puts it in his description of the movie, he “learned very quickly that you cannot direct a four year old (…) you just sort of have to let the four year old happen”.

The presence of this unfiltered four year-old girl is the key to World of Tomorrow‘s greatness. Hertzfeldt clearly tailored the movie around what his niece said in the recordings, but you can still feel the authenticity of the performance. Animation is a medium where the creator has virtually absolute control over his product, so the fact that there is an uncontrollable being in the middle of this very cerebral movie makes it irresistible to me. As a result, World of Tomorrow is not about its big ideas, or its very funny observations, or being melancholy. It’s a movie that just “is”. Hertzfeldt captures “existence” in a way that very few filmmakers ever have.

We don’t often say this because he works mostly in short formats, but Don Hertzfeldt is one of the best directors alive, and World of Tomorrow is the best piece of filmmaking I have seen so far this year. If you haven’t spend $3.49 to rent it on Vimeo yet, I strongly suggest that you do.

Grade: 10 out of 10

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