‘Stopmotion’ Fantastic Fest 2023 Review: Disturbing Body Horror And Terrifying Meat Puppets


Stop-motion animation is a painful labor of love, a tedious art all about controlling and manipulating space. It requires patience and creativity, something director Robert Morgan knows well as an animator himself. He channels the unique experience of manipulating puppets one millimeter at a time to create his feature film debut Stopmotion. Despite the film’s specificity, Morgan is still able to create a universal story about insecurity and the deep fear of never being able to create something that you’ll truly be proud of. Stopmotion subverts genre expectations with a unique take on the mad artist narrative that delves into the deep insecurities that lurk in the dark corner of every creative’s mind.

The film focuses on Ella (Aisling Franciosi), a stop-motion animator living under the thumb of her demanding mother (Stella Gonet), a legendary animator whose hands are failing due to arthritis. Ella must care for her mother’s every need, from cutting her food into tiny pieces to animating her mother’s creations. Ella has no agency in her life. Her ideas are constantly rejected and she’s a glorified puppet for an egotistical mother who shows love through constant manipulation and pointed insults. So when her mother suffers a massive stroke, it first seems like Ella will finally be free. But without a guiding hand, she becomes unmoored, unable to find her own creative voice in the face of her newfound independence.

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Thanks to her boyfriend Tom (Tom York), Ella is able to take over an abandoned apartment as her studio to finish her mom’s final film. However, upon the arrival of a mysterious little girl who claims the film is boring, Ella ditches the first project and opts for a new, more terrifying story. This one is about the Ashman, a strange creature, who stalks a young woman through the woods. As Ella brings the story to life, her grasp on reality begins to loosen as she desperately tries to make her art and prove that she is worth something.

On paper, Stopmotion sounds like a predictable look at a crazy female artist with mommy issues who loses her mind through her art. But thanks to Morgan and Robin King’s script, paired with incredible practical effects work and Dan Martin’s nightmarish puppet designs, the film is always a few steps ahead, ready to surprise and disgust. The final act will have viewers squirming in their seats, begging for a moment to breathe between acts of violence. Cinematographer Léo Hinstin lets the camera linger in viscera no matter how uncomfortable, forcing us to revel in the artistic beauty of Ella’s perverse creations.

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The entire film is best described as visceral. It appeals to all five senses, making Stopmotion a hellish immersive experience that throws us right into Ella’s madness. Impeccable sound design by Ben Baird has human joints creaking like puppet armatures as Ella perceives those around her as objects to control. This small detail shows us Ella’s deep arrogance, an arrogance that may not always outwardly manifest, but that lurks deep within her subconscious. Autopsy wax wraps around rotting meat to create terrifying yet enthralling faces that you can practically smell through the screen. You feel every moment of the film, experiencing everything in tandem with Ella. We are so squarely placed in her shoes that we can practically taste the dirt and blood in her mouth.

This is all, of course, brought to life by the incredible Aisling Franciosi, who previously impressed audiences with her stunning performance in The Nightingale. Here, there is barely a moment without Franciosi on screen as she carries the film on her very capable shoulders. Her facial expressions alone tell Ella’s story of privilege, abuse, and exhaustion, a woman who should be happy but is creatively stunted due to a controlling mother and a devastating amount of self-doubt. Franciosi doesn’t just make Ella sympathetic; she makes her a little unbearable and cocky, giving you more to engage with than just your typical tortured artist. 

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The only underdeveloped aspect of an otherwise precise script is Ella’s relationship with her mother. While their power dynamic is quickly and strongly established at the film’s beginning, it falls to the wayside as Ella begins her own creative journey. While that choice does speak to Ella’s true feelings about her mother as not a parent but as an overseer, it makes this integral part of Ella’s identity fall a bit flat. It feels almost shoehorned in to speak more deeply to the idea of trauma rather than engage with what happens when our parents see us as employees rather than children. The psychological damage is deeply implied, yes, and Morgan does keep much of what’s going on purposefully vague. But a bit more time with Ella’s mother would have pushed this film to perfection. 

Stopmotion isn’t a movie meant to be fully understood. Rather, it is a film to be experienced and left to fester. This film is a splinter burrowing into the soft pink flesh of your brain. Between delightfully repulsive puppets, a stellar central performance, and impeccable sound design, Morgan creates a deeply upsetting and utterly enthralling cinematic experience that taps into the insecurities that haunt us all. Call it festival madness, but this may just be one of the best films of the year.

IFC Films will bring Stopmotion to theaters in 2024.



Between delightfully repulsive puppets, a stellar central performance, and impeccable sound design, Morgan creates a deeply upsetting and utterly enthralling cinematic experience that taps into the insecurities that haunt us all.



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