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Sarah Snook Leads Oz Animation Voice Cast

Sarah Snook Leads Oz Animation Voice Cast

There’s a single brief shot in Memoir of a Snail showing a sleepy koala lounging in a tree fork that exemplifies the incredible attention even to the most casually observed details in this proudly analogue assembly of thousands of handcrafted objects. It also serves to show the very specific Australian-ness of Adam Elliot’s second feature, a young-adult chronicle of outsider existence that would feel intimately personal even without the meta aspect of a principal character who aspires to be a stop-motion animator.

With its morbid, often brashly salty sense of humor — we’re barely into it before learning that a homeless alcoholic voiced by Eric Bana is in fact a former magistrate defrocked for masturbating in court — and its refusal to shrink away from the darkness of death, depression, cruelty, loneliness and misshapen naked bodies, this is unlikely to be a parent-approved entertainment for young children.

Memoir of a Snail

The Bottom Line

A genuine curio.

Venue: Annecy Festival (Competition)
Cast: Sarah Snook, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jacki Weaver, Eric Bana, Magda Szubanski, Dominique Pinon, Tony Armstrong, Paul Capsis, Bernie Clifford, Davey Thompson, Charlotte Belsey, Mason Litsos, Nick Cave
Director-screenwriter: Adam Elliot

1 hour 34 minutes

Connoisseurs of unconventional animation and unapologetically weird storytelling, however, should eat it up. Despite its claymation bona fides, the movie owes less to Nick Park than to Jeunet and Caro, specifically Delicatessen and Amelie, a kinship seemingly acknowledged in the voice-casting of Dominique Pinon in a small role.

Elliot, who calls his work clayographies, won an Oscar in 2004 for his short film Harvie Krumpet and moved into features five years later with Mary and Max, another melancholic study of a misfit girl who finds a reprieve from solitude in her bond with a much older eccentric — voiced by Toni Colette and Philip Seymour Hoffman, respectively.

The director’s films are not exactly easy to love, just as often distancing as funny or warm. But in Memoir of a Snail, an eight-year labor of love, the quirky charms sneak up on you and the elaborate creation of an absurdly surreal, at times grotesque world is undeniably impressive. That world was partly inspired by Elliot’s experience downsizing the possessions of his elderly semi-hoarder mother, which led to research into acquisitive impulses and how often they are rooted in trauma.

Going against its rule that a snail never goes back on its trail, Elliot’s bittersweet story begins with the dying breaths of the wizened Pinky (Jacki Weaver), tended to by her devoted young friend Grace Pudel (Sarah Snook), who is completely confused by the old woman’s final gasp, “The potatoes!”

Nevertheless, Grace steps outside to the garden and releases her beloved snails from their jar, proceeding to tell her life story to her favorite, named Sylvia. This at first seems a fussy way into a narration-heavy, almost Dickensian tale of Australian experience on the margins, but it makes sense once Elliot winds his way back to where he started.

Grace and her twin brother Gilbert (Kodi Smit-McPhee) were born in 1972 to a mother who died in childbirth. “We left her womb, she entered her tomb,” says Grace, recalling the comfort of their mother’s music box, which played “Alouette” and contained a snail ring that Gilbert vowed to keep on his finger for life.

Grace grew up in and out of hospital with “a smorgasbord of afflictions” and a burgeoning obsession with collecting anything snail related. As children, she and her brother didn’t have much, but were content enough in their grimy Melbourne housing commission apartment block. They lived with their boozy paraplegic father Percy (Pinon), a French former animator and street juggler who fell in love with their mother and followed her from Paris to Australia, where a reckless driver cut short his busking career.

One of the loveliest sequences has the kids accompanying their dad to Luna Park to ride the rickety “Big Dipper” rollercoaster, an experience that Grace recalls made him feel alive and allowed him to escape his broken body. When she shares that Percy wanted his ashes scattered from the Big Dipper, it’s a safe bet that he won’t be around long.

Given the challenge of finding foster parents for twins, the siblings are separated, with Grace sent to the Canberra home of dedicated swingers and budding nudists Ian and Narelle (both voiced by Paul Capsis) while Gilbert goes to a family of evangelical fruit farmers near Perth, headed by Ruth (Oz comedy queen Magda Szubanski) and Owen (Bernie Clifford). There’s droll local humor in the info that Canberra was named “safest city in Australia” three years in a row, clearly code for boring.

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The parting of Grace and Gilbert is the movie’s emotional core, exiling them to opposite sides of a continent-wide desert and decades spent feeling the pain of their abrupt severance from an irreplaceable part of themselves.

Bullied at school for her cleft palate, Grace’s only solace is her snail collection and letters from Gilbert, who spares her from the worst of his uprooted life. But a glimmer of joy arrives when she befriends the free-spirited Pinky, so named for the finger she lost in an accident with an overhead fan while dancing in Barcelona. Dance is a passion for Pinky, who took up tap-dancing after her 80th birthday to ward off dementia and once worked as an exotic dancer in a schnitzel bar with the cheeky name of “Schnitz ‘n’ Tits.”

Puberty comes and goes leaving Grace’s virginity sadly intact, causing her to turn to romance novels and kleptomania. But love blossoms with the arrival of new neighbor Ken (Tony Armstrong), described by Grace as “more delicious than a Chiko Roll,” a vintage Australian deep-fried snack best not investigated.

Near-simultaneous news of a tragedy and a separate alarming discovery puts a crimp in Grace’s wedding plans, but the wisdom of Pinky and the assurance that even the bleakest life can contain magic wraps things up in a sweet silver lining.

One notable element here is that Grace, Gilbert and Percy until his untimely death are always reading — everything from Lord of the Flies to Catcher in the Rye, from Steinbeck to Kafka to The Diary of Anne Frank, not to mention the self-help books endorsed by Grace’s foster parents and the Bible sacred to Gilbert’s.

Those eclectic literary references are reflected in Elliot’s often chaotic storytelling, which is stuffed with descriptive incidental details, jokey asides and curious detours.  Accompanying it all is a striking score by classical composer Elena Kats-Chernin, played with gusto by the Australian Chamber Orchestra and enhanced by passages of vocalizing from soprano Jane Sheldon.

Voice work is excellent across the board, led by Snook, who brings sadness and defeat but also underlying warmth and resilient goodness to Grace (it’s a pleasure to hear the actor speak in her natural accent); Smit-McPhee, who inflects his dialogue with a hint of mischief that’s apt for a boy who literally plays with fire; and Weaver, tapping into her National Treasure persona with plain-spoken verve, irreverence and a wild streak undimmed by the advancing years.

Like Elliot’s earlier work, Memoir of a Snail will be an acquired taste, and the director takes longer than ideal to locate the pathos beneath the eccentricities. But the artisanal spirit and abundant creativity of the enterprise is undeniable, immersing us in a vivid world crafted from clay, wire, paper and paint, without a single frame of CG imagery.

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