A work of thin stick figures and thick philosophy, World of Tomorrow is a 17-minute animated short about a toddler who receives a visit from her adult clone. Contacting the girl from a few centuries in the future, the clone offers a seemingly cheery vision of extended life, even as the film itself is a morbidly witty retort to our continual quest for a fountain of youth.
Written and directed by Don Hertzfeldt, World of Tomorrow is breathtaking in its ability to conjure deep meaning through (seeming) simplicity. All of human hubris and folly can be summed up in this early exchange between little Emily Prime (voiced by Hertzfeldt’s niece, Winona Mae) and her clone (Julia Pott):
“Through this cloning process, Emily, you will hope to live forever.”
“I had lunch today.”
Even as Emily the clone describes a future obsessed with (and somewhat successful at) staving off death, mortality haunts the imagery. There is David, the brainless clone body left to age while on display at a museum. There are the solar-powered robots on the moon that have been programmed to follow the light of the sun, and continue to do so long after their human supervisors have abandoned them. And then there is Emily, who speaks almost entirely of technological progress but gets twitchy – literally – when confronted with the reality of her limitations.
Don’t be fooled by Hertzfeldt’s use of stick figures, which belie the film’s overall visual sophistication.
Don’t be fooled by Hertzfeldt’s use of stick figures, which belie the film’s overall visual sophistication. Given their simplicity, the slightest adjustment in animation – as when Emily’s eyes briefly go on the fritz in irrepressible distress – makes an inversely sophisticated emotional impact. Meanwhile, behind the two figures is an evocative and transforming backdrop of bright lines, spinning shapes and vibrating squiggles, as if we’ve been dropped inside a Formica countertop from the 1950s.
Often the animated production design is meant to evoke the melancholy that Emily seems intent on downplaying. Near the end, however, she relents for a moment. As the screen goes white, except for her own sharp, black lines, she says, “I am very proud of my sadness.” There is no doubt that Hertzfeldt should be proud of his.