UK / 2002
Any psychologist would tell you that true psychopaths are very (sexually) attractive. They will charm your pants off. They learn to mimic emotions and manipulate even the smartest and most aware individuals while not seeing them as human but around for their amusement only. They also abuse animals.
– From HBO’s The Jinx
There are some animated films that it just feels wrong to describe as a ‘cartoon’. For most animated films you can let this description pass, even if it seems a bit dismissive. Even grown up films like When The Wind Blows can just about be described as a ‘cartoon’, as it’s animation that uses humour and a stylised version of reality (even if the humour is very black) but for some animated films – Grave of the Fireflies, for instance – the term ‘cartoon’ just seems wrong. Chris Shepherd’s Dad’s Dead is one of these.
For a start, as with several other films on this list (Neighbours and The Wizard of Speed and Time) it could be debated whether Dad’s Dead is, strictly speaking, an animated film or not. It’s probably only about 25% ‘proper’ animation but outside that a lot of it has had the the video manipulated the hell out of it frame by frame (or the hell into it, in this case), so it probably just about qualifies as animation.
Secondly, it’s just way too dark to be a ‘cartoon’. Like with Don Hertzfeld’s Everything Will Be OK on this list, Dad’s Dead uses animation to draw us into a false sense of security before punching us in the face (a bit like what happens to the narrator in the film). Starting off similar to one of those cute, ironic retro pieces, using lots of animated shots of children’s books, toys and cartoon characters, we quickly realise it isn’t really cute at all as the animated characters are those cheap grotesque badly drawn versions of Disney imagery you see at playgrounds and on ice cream vans, combined with rude graffiti. And then the narrator talks about stuff like the daft haircuts people had when we were kids and the mischief we all got up to, like er.. drawing obscene graffiti and throwing cats off high buildings and ..wait.. “throwing cats of high buildings”??? NO. Stop right there, we didn’t do that. Who the hell did that? And that’s just the start of it. That’s why you couldn’t call this a cartoon, it’s way way too dark. And the world and the detail it contains make it feel way way too real.
‘British Realism’ is a persistent tradition in UK cinema, stretching back to the pre-war documentaries of John Grierson’s GPO Film Unit reflecting peoples real lives back at them from the screen for possibly the first time and the positive Post War optimism of Ealing Studios films like This Happy Breed. The 1950’s documentaries of the Free Cinema movement showed the toughness of a lot of British lives and carried through to the 1960s where the ‘Kitchen Sink’ films of the British New Wave (eg. Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night Sunday Morning and Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) reflected a cynicism born from Nye Bevan’s post war dream of a ‘we’re all in it together’ meritocratic society crashing up against traditional class barriers.
Today this strand of filmmaking lives on with the gritty social conscience films of Ken Loach and the many contemporary film makers he has inspired, spotlighting the widening inequalities that decades of neo-liberal government have brought. In the work of most contemporary film makers of this type, the overt political aspects of many of Loach’s films are replaced by stories in which the hopelessness created by this marginalisation twists and corrupts behaviour to create drama in different ways. For example in the films of Shane Meadows we see characters torn between good influences and crime or violence, in the work of Andrea Arnold and Lyne Ramsey the focus is a more on a kind of subtle poetic and spiritual (feminine?) aspects, finding lyrical qualities in broken lives while Mike Leigh’s films are often looking for the black humour in the cringingly uncomfortable situations that desire and ambition pushes people into, revealing the extraordinary and grotesque in ordinary suburban lives.
Dad’s Dead can be interpreted as another mutation of this tradition, a touch of British Realism combined with a junior version of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer perhaps. A disturbing and uncomfortable story of a kid with a potentially decent ‘moral compass’ getting sucked in to hanging round with the wrong crowd, or in this case a teenage sociopath. The narrator (Ian Hart) is slowly drawn into darkly funny and then increasingly nasty situations, a ‘friendship’ ruthlessly corrupted and viciously exploited by someone who surrounds himself with a cloak of lies.
An amalgam of real stories and characters from Shepherd’s working class childhood in Liverpool, the film blends and overlays live action and drawn animation styles to create a both gritty and painterly surreal texture. This multi award winning film was made for the UK’s Animate! experimental animation scheme, for which Shepherd would later also collaborate with surrealist cartoon artist David Shrigley on the short Who I Am and What I Want (2005) . Shepherd’s next short Silence is Golden (2006) explored similar themes of childhood fantasy and mixed techniques of live action and animation and he has gone on to make further interesting and award winning shorts.
Perhaps the most disturbing stories are the ones about the ‘banality of evil’, about the real monsters that live amongst us as regular people, acting like ordinary neighbours, ingratiating themselves with our vulnerable elderly relatives and kids. Don’t watch this if you want a ‘cartoon’ with a few easy laughs, this is a real world horror story for our era.
Note: The 100 greatest animated shorts is a list of opinions and not an order of value from best to worst. Click here to see all of the picks of the list so far. All suggestions, comments and outrage are welcome!