Running Time: 22 minutes
US Certificate: NR UK Certificate: 12
Though only a minute in length, Adam Elliot’s first student film, the hand-drawn ‘Human Behavioural Studies, Series One’ (1996), is like a calling card for the Australian animator, laying out in its three remarkably compressed character studies an interest that would typify all his future works: the tragicomic drama of ordinary lives. For his next project, a trilogy of semi-fictionalised, wistful portraits of his relatives, he turned to stopmotion plasticine modelling – rarely used in this day and age of photorealistic CGI, but a technique whose ordinary household materials perfectly suited his everyday subjects (and no doubt his budgets) – and claymation has remained his medium of choice ever since. After ‘Uncle’ (1996), ‘Cousin’ (1998) and ‘Brother’ (1999) had garnered numerous awards around the world, Elliot was able to begin work on an altogether more ambitious piece, filming in colour and with a duration (22min) that enabled him for the first time to show a life from beginning to end – and so his Oscar-winning short ‘Harvie Krumpet’ was born.
Born in snowy Poland, that is, in 1922, with big ears and Tourette’s syndrome. Harvie’s illiterate mother withdraws him from school after he is bullied, and instead teaches him the ‘fakts’ of life in her own peculiar way. His parents freeze to death in an accident, the Germans invade, and Harvie emigrates to Australia, where, after a misunderstanding which leads to his skull being split open, he has a metal plate inserted into his head, only for it to be permanently magnetised when he is struck by lightning. He becomes a committed nudist and an animal liberationist (in a neat allusion to Nick Park’s claymation feature ‘Chicken Run’), then loses a testicle but gains a wife – the nurse Valerie. When Harvie is declared sterile, the couple adopt a thalidomide baby, Ruby, and Harvie devotes himself to being a full-time father until Ruby moves to New York to become a successful disabled rights lawyer. Valerie dies suddenly, and Harvie, alone and increasingly senile, is committed to a nursing home, where Alzheimer’s sets in and he becomes gravely depressed – until a chance encounter right at death’s door gives him a new lease on life.
Although there has recently been a spate of Hollywood biopics (The Aviator, Ray etc.), none of them has managed to cram into a duration of several hours as much incident or pathos as ‘Harvie Krumpet’ achieves in a mere twenty minutes of dialogue-free narrative. A constant misfit and occasional optimist, this stranger in a strange land has more in common with the eponymous protagonist of Werner Herzog’s Stroszek (1976) than with the typical heroes of animation, and his quietly eventful life proves just as bittersweet. Narrated by Geoffrey Rush, and racing along but somehow never seeming hurried, ‘Harvie Krumpet’ is amusing, moving and haunting all at once, affirming life even as it mocks its cruel and futile vicissitudes. Harvie is last seen as naked as the day he was born – and it is left for the viewer to decide whether, in his long journey through life, Harvie has travelled far and achieved miracles, or just gone round in circles getting nowhere. Of course the question of life’s value is a staple of the biopic – but rarely is it posed as concisely, and as compellingly, as by Adam Elliot’s simple man of clay.
It's Got: A human magnet; a resentful parrot; a doctor recommending more cigarettes as a cure for asthma; an epiphany of the Roman poet Horace; a testicle in a jar; nude finger puppetry; a Busby Berkley inspired hallucination involving men dancing in wheelchairs; a busstop to nowhere.
It Needs: To be seen.
DVD Extras Aspect ratio 16:9 anamorphic; choice of Dolby Digital 2.0/5.1; optional subtitles (English/French); full audio commentary by writer/director/animator Adam Elliot, revealing that the snow, made from icing sugar, was constantly being devoured by ants, that pausing on Dr Greystanes certificate shows she is registered as a podiatrist, that Valerie is based on his mother, and that the parrot Brians pooh is made of balsa wood; other shorts by Adam Elliot, including the hand-drawn student film Human Behavioural Case Studies, Series 1 (1996, 1min), and his award-winning claymation family trilogy (each with optional commentary from Elliot) Uncle (1996, 6min), Cousin (1998, 4min) and Brother (1999, 8min); featurette (5min) comparing storyboards to the final footage, with commentary by Elliot; character model shots (four each) of Harvie, Ruby, Val and Hamish. Version reviewed: Metrodome, Catalogue no. MTD5171 also available Harvie Krumpet (Amazon.com) DVD Extras Rating: 9/10
Adam Elliot's ill-starred clown of clay poses life's important questions with compellingly absurd concision.