The big movie this weekend is Snowpiercer!
Okay, so it isn’t. The big movie this weekend is Transformers: Age of Extinction. However, you can’t watch the bulk of the old cartoons for free online, and what’s available is, frankly, terrible. The web series that Hasbro put out to accompany this recent batch of features, Cyber Missions, is staggeringly dull. Don’t waste your time. If you have Netflix streaming do yourself a favor and watch some of the original 1984–1987 series, particularly a bizarre Season 2 episode called “Auto-Bop” in which the Decepticons take over a New York City nightclub.
Thank me later.
But back to Snowpiercer! I don’t think it would be too much of an exaggeration to say that the cinema owes an awful lot to the locomotive. Trains look great on screen, particularly in the least hospitable climates. David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago each feature stunning sequences that involve the proverbial Iron Horse. The train is perhaps the defining metaphor of and for the 20th century. Just look to the Estonian stop-motion short featured in my Annecy Film Festival round-up, Ülo Pikkov’s haunting Body Memory.
Snowpiercer appears to be no different, a high-speed allegory flying through the desolate snowy wastelands of the post-apocalyptic future.
Of course, all train rides have an origin. One wonders, watching the trailer for Bong Joon-ho’s new film, how exactly Tilda Swinton ended up on such a dystopian locomotive. There is actually a prequel of sorts, an animated short made available on the feature’s YouTube channel. It’s basically a big-budget fan film made by South Korean studio CJ Entertainment. It begins with the world-altering disaster of Global Warming, which has become so much of a problem in this hypothetical near future that the powers that be decide to take drastic measures. They launch what appear to be giant snow-rockets into the sky, or something. The ensuing solution is even worse than the problem, and all hell breaks loose.
All in all it’s kind of a bust. Most of it is in the form of frozen 3D computer animated images, snapshots of a disaster through which a horrified camera moves. Some of these images are quite interesting, especially when shattered glass and suddenly-icy surfaces are involved. Yet the story is a bit clunky, and a few moments are just a bit too violent and bleak. It does essentially feel like a fan film, one with a bigger budget than most but still lacking in some really necessary creativity.
I am proposing an alternative prequel to Snowpiercer that you should watch before heading to the theater. The story doesn’t work out exactly, but no matter. Call it an appetizer. It may not directly address any sort of climate change disaster but it does come from the frozen north. I’m talking about the Canadian Oscar-nominated stop motion animated short, Madame Tutli-Putli.
Directed by Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, this bewildering train flick is the story of a lone woman on a journey. We do not know where she is going or even who she is. All we know, from the languid opening shot, is that she has a great deal of luggage. She arrives in her shared cabin with a quizzical, doe-eyed expression beneath her fabulous cloche hat. Sharing the space is a surly child reading a book, two old men playing chess, a craggy-faced tennis player and something with white fur stuffed into a suitcase. Lavis and Szczerbowski show us a slightly off-kilter world from the very beginning. The chess game is amusingly determined by the movement of the train. The boy’s book is used as an opportunity to make a joke. The tennis player’s racquet gives the opportunity for a brief, dreamlike glimpse at his athletic ability. The atmosphere is already one of witty mystery before the robbers show up.
If they are in fact robbers. I won’t spoil what happens in the second half of the film, though I probably couldn’t even if I wanted to. Things become very eerie, and there are peculiar events that seem to conflict with one another. Madame Tutli-Putli herself, meanwhile, becomes much more lively, desperate and determined to figure out what on earth is going on. Her expression is the subtle triumph of the animators of this already impressive film, eyes that move so minutely and with such purpose that they lend the emotion of a real human face.
And she could easily be played by Swinton in a live action adaptation. I am not suggesting exactly that Madame Tutli-Putli would become the Minister of the Train in Snowpiercer many years later, but it would explain her obsession with locomotives. Besides, the atmospheric triumph of this short film makes it the perfect prelude to any feature with any amount of snowy mystery.