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Stop-motion opus “Mad God” probes the darkest recesses of the subconscious mind

Phil Tippett’s painstakingly crafted apocalyptic vision screens as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival on April 10 at the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Header Image: Rows of zombie workers march single-file into an infernal factory.

Inspired by a nightmarish blend of painter Hieronymus Bosch, animator Jan Švankmajer, and Dante’s Inferno, Mad God (2021) is a disturbing new masterwork from Phil Tippett, one of Hollywood’s most accomplished stop-motion animators. Tippett has had a long career in special effects, and is best known for his contributions to the Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Robocop franchises. Tippett pivoted to CGI along with the rest of the industry in the 1990s, most notably designing the bugs in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997), but his passion has always been for the old-school charm of stop-motion animation that defines Mad God, which will be making its Wisconsin premiere at the Wisconsin Film Festival on Sunday, April 10, at 7:30 p.m., at Wisconsin Union Theater (Shannon Hall).

Tippett actually began working on Mad God in his garage in the 1980s, but didn’t return to the project until the 21st century when he was assisted by a new generation of artists eager to learn hands-on special effects. Though intended as an antidote to his unfulfilling day job as a special effects consultant, Mad God became an obsessive undertaking probing the darkest recesses of Tibbett’s subconscious. In an Inverse interview, he stated that he “had some sort of psychotic snap at the end, and it sent me to the psych ward for a while… I got too close and got burned.” It’s easy to understand Tippett’s deteriorating mental state when faced with Mad God, a painstakingly crafted apocalyptic vision overflowing with minute details.

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Lacking dialogue or a clear-cut narrative, Mad God instead flows in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, immersing the audience in grotesque tableaux populated with Tippett’s grotesquely imaginative creations. The film’s first segment follows The Assassin, who descends by diving bell into a war-torn landscape. Carrying a time bomb, The Assassin journeys underground, passing through an immense factory fueled by death and excrement. In the next segment, a humanoid figure (who could also be The Assassin) is the victim of horrifying medical experiments. It culminates in the surgeon removing a screeching worm-infant from his torso. Later, Tippett introduces The Last Man (played by Repo Man director Alex Cox in scenes that blend stop-motion with live-action), who’s building an army of identical Assassins and sending them one at a time down into the world below. In the film’s final act, the worm-baby is handed over to The Alchemist, a giant figure wearing a plague mask and wide-brimmed hat, who pulverizes the infant into goo in an attempt to turn matter into gold.

Though his only other feature-length directing credit is Starship Troopers 2: Hero Of The Federation (2004), Tippett’s technical skill and obsessive eye for detail make Mad God an astonishingly well-crafted film. His creations have always been praised for their lifelike motion, and Mad God teems with creatures preying on each other like a macabre version of Fantastic Planet (1973). Wanton cruelty, death, and destruction are constant motifs. Characters are constantly crushed by flying ingots or stomped by hideous monsters.

Stop-motion is generally considered either obsolete or children’s entertainment, but Mad God demonstrates the medium’s ability to still shock and dazzle an audience. It’s not clear what the future holds for Tippett, who has been very vocal about his dissatisfaction with modern IP-centric filmmaking. While directors like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Paul Verhoeven allowed Tippett’s imagination and skills to flourish, he’s been openly contemptuous of his work on contemporary Disney projects like The Mandalorian (2019- ) and The Falcon And The Winter Soldier (2021).

As CGI is increasingly used in the film industry as a way to exploit non-union workers, a consummate artist like Tippett seems as archaic as stop-motion animation, but Mad God is a powerful testament to what old-fashioned special effects can accomplish.

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