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GOCRITIC! Anifilm Liberec 2024

GoCritic! Review: Wander to Wonder


- Nina Gantz’s stop-motion spoof is sweeping the festival scene with its haunting yet humorous juxtaposition of sincerity and unease, child-like innocence and an undertone of malice

GoCritic! Review: Wander to Wonder

Sweeping the festival circuit with awards and special mentions (SXSW, Tampere Film Festival, Glasgow Short Film Festival, Anima) is Nina Gantz’s sinister stop-motion spoof Wander to Wonder, which most recently took home the International Short Film Special Mention at Anifilm Festival in Liberec. The film expresses a fascination with classic children’s television and its unsettling juxtaposition of sincerity, humour and unease, which proves to be the creative anchor for Gantz’s third short animation and its abundance of eerie faculties.

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The film begins with the nostalgic flicker of a grainy video tape, launching into the opening credits of the fictional children’s TV show ‘Wander to Wonder’. We are greeted by the show’s live-action creator, Uncle Gilly (played by Neil Salvage) who sings the names of his miniature stop-motion playmates with authentic gusto: Mary, Billybud and Fumbleton. The sound design is perfectly matched to the show’s jarring blend of child-like innocence with an undertone of malice; the theme song’s tinny plonks are an unwelcome earworm in the making. Now that the stage is set, we can take Uncle Gilly’s hand and ‘wander to wonder’, but not before the video cuts from an old episode to a new, live recording of the show.

As Mary recounts the trio's favourite hobbies, the theme of today’s episode, it becomes immediately clear that something is amiss — the strained pep in Mary’s voice, the buzzing of bluebottles across a haphazardly pinned-up backdrop. This show is a strange and skewed version of the original, which the miniature characters are recreating themselves. The tension is cut by the comic reveal of Fumbleton’s naked body from beneath his cloak, his proportionally tiny ‘wilky’ on full display as he squawks Shakespearian verse into the oncoming void - voiced by Toby Jones. The reality of their post-apocalyptic home is confirmed as we see the stiff, dead feet of Uncle Gilly poking up from the floor of the shed, surrounded by show memorabilia and an impending sense of dread.   

The misfit protagonists survive on nostalgia, flies and jars of pickles — elaborately opened by a homemade pulley system — as the lingering hum of past episodes are anxiously replayed on a camcorder. Mary deals with her sadness by keeping busy, reading letters from their fans aloud before pasting them over dead Uncle Gilly to cover the smell, adamant the words of their young admirers be heard before being ripped up and put to good use. As absurd and sad as this image is, you can’t help but laugh at the macabre humour of it all. As their home-videos grow more unhinged, we see Mary, Billybud and Fumbleton grow sick from eating dead flies and beg their absent audience for food in desperation.

Gantz’s substantial artistic abilities make for a sustained atmosphere of disquiet, superbly emanating the disturbed musings of her troubled and silly characters. Scenes like the regimented sharing of the trio’s last gherkin have a Wes Anderson quality in their blunt symmetry, coupled with a distinct, visual undertone of discord that often borders on the grotesque. There is an unmistakable sense of humour to the piece, though the comedy is only there to frame a much bigger picture, about the means of moving on. Ultimately, Wander to Wonder watches Mary, Billybud and Fumbleton move through their isolated purgatory with deep existential dread, where the loss of the show’s creator aptly teaches them their final lesson — grief and letting go. As they process their collective woe, the group are forced into an emotional puberty that pushes them outside their comfort zone, away from their protected home and into the big, wide world of wonder.

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