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GOCRITIC! Anifilm Liberec 2024

GoCritic! Review: Tony, Shelly and the Magic Light


- The winning film of Anifilm’s Czech Horizons competition is a technically marvellous piece of children’s animation that suffers from weak character development and cliched plot

GoCritic! Review: Tony, Shelly and the Magic Light

Having already received Anifilm’s Czech Horizons Feature Film Award for 2024 at the opening of the festival in Liberec’s F. X. Šalda Theatre, Filip Pošivač’s Tony, Shelly and the Magic Light [+see also:
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seemed like one of frontrunners for the festival’s top prize. Its alluring, first-rate stop-motion arsenal shines brightly throughout the picture, interweaving with digital 2D animation to provide for some breathtaking moments. But despite witnessing such whimsical elements as Tony’s glowing skin, Shelly’s magic flashlight and the light-devouring spirit inhabiting their old apartment building, one would be hard-pressed to call the movie magical. Its most alluring premises are underdeveloped, its moments of genius fleeting and the story regretfully uninspired.

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But inspiration is very much present in the top-notch light design and cinematography, striking a perfect balance in the rich colour scheme in numerous spaces that are all part of the same location. They feel distinct and vibrant, partially compensating for the otherwise middling character design and music score. 

What the film achieves in its visuals is undercut by the cookie-cutter plot and half-baked characters. Perhaps most saddening is the short-lived integration of digital 2D animation within this otherwise stop-motion world – the film’s biggest missed opportunity. Brought about when the young girl Shelly turns on her flashlight, the digital 2D fragments mark magical manifestations of her imagination, at one point conjuring imaginary flowers to help her leap atop a building. Even better, only she and the shiny, glowing Tony can see them. What great adventures could arise from such power? In what unforeseen ways could 3D and 2D interact, as they iconically did in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Sadly, none, as the movie quickly forgoes these elements in favour of a conventional, albeit cutesy story centred around a grey-hued community of neighbours who must be cured by the fight with a shadowy beast, the character design of which is akin to a fuzzy reinterpretation of the black, all-devouring slug-like spirit in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Its wave-like fur texture is something to behold, excusing the derivative design. The story, meanwhile, trods along the usual tropes: unrelentingly strict parents, an overheard and misunderstood discussion, and a cathartic act of love to save the day. 

Just as cliche is the character design of the film’s secondary villain, Mrs. Tubby, construing obesity for moral wickedness. A story of accepting one’s disability – Tony is particularly self-conscious about his glow, a feeling shared by his parents – rings sadly untrue when your main character’s physical flaw is, objectively speaking, rather beautiful, while your villain is comically overweight. Not only is her weight irrelevant to the overarching story except for a few gags, but it is yet another example of physical deformation reserved solely for the villains of cinema. If we stereotype the overweight as self-centred and vile to children, we foster an intolerant culture from a young age. 

Perhaps the strongest character design is the building’s groundskeeper, an old, treant-like figure, whose frailty is reflected through the blooming of flowers from his body. This unconventional design also leads to a remarkably beautiful death scene, as the old man quickly turns into a bed of snowdrops — truly, the movie’s best moment and the only one which achieves the warmth Pošivač and screenwriter Jana Srámková seem to have been aiming at.

Whereas the other departments have made mostly safe choices, the picture’s animation and lighting teams utilise (and even elevate) the full scope of what stop-motion features can look like in 2024. But filmmaking can’t be upheld by good visuals alone, especially not in this day and age. Thirty years ago, perhaps, Tony, Shelly and the Magic Light might have been remarkable, but its light appears quite dim in the cosmos of contemporary features.

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