THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF TOM THUMB is not for small children, and even adult viewers may be disturbed by this eerie transmutation of a familiar fairy story into a grim postmodern sci-fi tale.
The setting is a shadowy land, architecturally medieval, socially impoverished, scientifically advanced. The place is infested with bugs, and in the BRAZIL-style opening one errant fly contaminates an assembly-line of the Super Seed Insemination factory, resulting in a tiny malformed baby born
to a miserable peasant couple. The father thinks it's only a stillborn fetus until it writhes and coughs in his hands. "Why don't we call him Tom," says Father, the longest and most intelligible line in a story that's mostly mutterings and mime, as little Tom is raised in secret by adoring
parents, Father scavenging discarded doll clothes for the lad. That alerts mutant-wary authorities, who seize Tom and take him to the Laboratorium, where genetic aberrations are cultivated and studied.
Tom meets other caged, sad monstrosities: disembodied eyes, hands, a mouth, and in a glass-and-steel chamber an angry spark called the Isolated Metabolic Processes (IMP). Begged by them to pull a wall switch, Tom cuts off the life support system, mercifully ending most of the experiments. Then
he escapes from enraged scientists down a waste-disposal conduit into a swamp populated with other miniature people. These fairylike folk dwell in perpetual fear of the callous, towering humans, and their warrior-prince Jack listens to Tom's account of the Laboratorium and its IMP energy force.
Though Jack is a sworn enemy of the humans (as in Jack the Giant-Killer), he arranges a reunion between Tom and his now-widowed Father. In gratitude, the man takes both Tom and Jack into town, but he is waylaid and beaten to death by a thug. Jack gets what he wants, however--access to the
Laboratorium. Tom leads the way to the IMP chamber, and Jack smashes the protective glass, triggering an apocalyptic explosion. In heaven, Tom joins his parents, accompanied by a halo of flies.
Human actors and puppets interact in this stop-motion spectacle, not through any bluescreen or double-exposure process, but by means of the painstaking manipulation of people and models, one frame at a time. When done with live actors, this technique is known as pixilation, and has often served
the cause of comedy (as in Mike Jittlov's THE WIZARD OF SPEED AND TIME, 1988). But here the technique evokes Tom's shrunken perspective, in a threatening world where grotesque "normal" humans lumber, loom, and grunt. Some rather morbid injections of humor put this closer to ERASERHEAD than the
ghoulishly giggly TIM BURTON'S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, but true inspiration for TOM THUMB resides with such cult figures of the European avant-garde as the American-born stop-motion artists the Brothers Quay and their mentor, Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer. The insects that plague TOM
THUMB's neo-Dark Age (where science has taken on a semblance of alchemy) are shown in closeup to be syringes on scuttling legs, and one of the hero's short-lived allies in the Laboratorium is a biomechanical dragon, a crawling, skull-headed homunculus trailing a tail made of electric cable.
Lab scenes convey a strong anti-vivisection theme, but much of the movie feels deliberately opaque. Macabre details like a crucified Santa Claus, a cackling ventriloquist's dummy, and a human femme fatale who's obviously a man in drag have more shock value than relevance, and the Lilliputian
kingdom in the swamp especially calls for explanation. At some showings, the production company (the bolexbrothers) made available a plot summary that explains, among other things, that the IMP is an imprisoned life form rather than a nuclear reactor.
Filmmaker Dave Borthwick, a former stage lighting designer, helped found the bolexbrothers in Bristol as an animation-speciality studio. Their concept of Tom Thumb actually debuted in 1988 as a 10-minute short, gaining considerable attention. The expanded SECRET ADVENTURES came to British
screens in late 1993 and won awards at fantasy film festivals, with scattered US showings during the following year. (Adult situations, violence, substance abuse.)
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- Released: 1993
- Rating: NR
- Review: THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF TOM THUMB is not for small children, and even adult viewers may be disturbed by this eerie transmutation of a familiar fairy story into a grim postmodern sci-fi tale. The setting is a shadowy land, architecturally medieval, soci… (more)