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"Harvie Krumpet": That Fantastic Adventure Called Life

by on April 4, 2005

These days animation is enjoying something of a golden age, expanding its audience, winning Academy Awards, and earning hundreds of millions. However, for all the hoopla that inevitably surrounds the latest rendering technology, it’s important to remember that CGI is not the only fish in the sea. Though nothing on the scale of Shrek or Toy Story, good old-fashioned claymation has also made a bit of a comeback in the last decade. Brit Nick Park first charmed Oscar voters with his delightful Wallace and Gromit shorts, went on conquer the box office with the smashing feature Chicken Run, and will return to the silver screen with the upcoming Curse of the Wererabbit. Now, with the arrival of the very talented Australian Adam Elliot, the lovable moldable stuff is no longer a one-horse medium. His Harvie Krumpet took home the 2003 Academy Award for best animated short film, and this splendidly eccentric tale will win over all but the most hardhearted viewers.

Whereas Park has made a name for himself with Looney Tunes-style flashy action and wacky comedy, Elliot takes a more contemplative approach to his films, more in common with Woody Allen than Bugs Bunny. Harvie is packed with plenty of amusing moments, but the focus is on poignant moments of human drama. Though a bit surreal at times, more often than not these are situations with which viewers will identify. We watch the hapless Harvie fumble his way through life’s many highs and lows, from school problems to deaths in his family to illness, career dissatisfaction, romance, parenting, old age, and more. Insightful and very affecting, the film is bound to have viewers reflecting not only on the meaning of life in general, but on their own as well. Elliot sums up his own views on the matter in the coda: “Life is like a cigarette, smoke it to the butt.” And for twenty minutes Harvie certainly Harvie on DVDdoes his best.

Harvie Krumpet is born in Poland in 1922 to working class parents. He is diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome and has a compulsive need to touch things. As he has trouble fitting in at school, his caring but flaky mother decides to homeschool him, teaching him an endless list of “facts.” The rest of the film is peppered with these offbeat “facts,” as interpreted by Harvie about developments in his life. Eventually his mother slips into insanity and accidentally burns the house down, and that’s the end of his parents. With World War II approaching, Harvie immigrates to Australia where he works at a garbage dump. Due to the first of many injuries, he has to get a metal plate put in his head, and a subsequent lightning strike magnetizes it to comic effect. Lonely and depressed he resolves to seize the day and quits his mundane job to join an animal activist group and a nudist colony. Hospitalized again, he meets a nurse Val, and they hit it off and get married. They adopt a handicapped child Ruby, and Harvie dotes on her, quitting his job to teach her at home. For the first time as an adult Harvie experiences true happiness, but as with all other stages of his life it proves ephemeral.

Harvie is the only character we get to observe at length, others such as his mother and Val are relegated to glorified cameos. Yet even Harvie remains a relative enigma up through the end. This is partially because the film is so brief and the only voice is the clinical one of the narrator (Geoffrey Rush in a charming performance), but moreover the film is content to restrict analysis to a storybook level. We do learn through watching his life unfold that Harvie is kind, indomitable, relatively unambitious, and outrageously unlucky. A bit of a Forrest Gump, I suppose he is the sort of lovable, eccentric loser that you can’t help but root for.

Harvie comes to life through glorious claymation, and there isn’t nearly enough of this kind of work out there. The visuals are a bit less polished and more down to earth than the eye-popping action of something like Chicken Run, but that is appropriate since this is more a story about real life than a fantasy. Nevertheless the animation is very charming and a treat to watch. Harvie himself looks a bit like a modified Homer Simpson, and the rest of the cast wouldn’t look out of place in Springfield either.

Although there isn’t much in the way of outright laughs, there are numerous clever moments in the film that will draw a smile. My favorite comes when a drunk Harvie entertains friends by putting on a finger puppet show from behind the sofa. Later Harvie is found passed out naked on the floor, and the horrifying discovery is made that it was not a finger puppet show after all.

If Harvie alone was not enough to convince you to pick up this disc, then the excellent special features should close the sale. The feature commentary by writer/director/animator Adam Elliott is quite entertaining and explains how some of the on-screen elements were created. Among the interesting revelations: Harvie’s Polish house set was completely overrun with ants during shooting and the garbage pile at the town dump was constructed partly out of painted over Barbie accessories. Adam Elliot Films are four fascinating semi-autobiographical shorts with commentary that contain more bittersweet ruminations on life along the lines of the main feature. The Storyboard Featurette is a brief but intriguing behind-the-scenes look at the development of scenes from storyboard to film. Finally the Character Model Shots provide photos of the main characters’ models from various angles for those of you who wish to play along with clay at home.

If you enjoy quirky comedy, tender sentiments on the human condition, or just claymation in general, I strongly recommend you accompany Harvie Krumpet on his roller coaster ride through life. Chuckles are guaranteed, dry eyes are not, and whether or not its lessons impart any great new wisdom you’ll definitely be the richer for them. Just don’t take that cigarette thing too literally.

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