Sometimes a film defies description even after you watch it. In the case of Mad God, Oscar-winning filmmaker Phil Tippett’s stop-motion magnum opus developed over more than three decades, the difficulty in boiling the film down to a few sentences is ultimately a good problem to have, because the singular experience it offers is one that benefits from having as little information as possible going into it.
One thing that is worth revealing, however, is that Mad God is unlike anything else you’ve seen lately — and are likely to see again anytime soon. And in the interest of preserving that experience, it’s probably best to keep any review of the film mercifully brief.
Directed, written, and produced by Tippett, Mad God is a project years in the making for the visual effects master who won an Oscar for his work in 1993’s Jurassic Park, and earned nominations in prior and subsequent years for his work on Dragonslayer, Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, Willow, and Starship Troopers, among other noteworthy projects. Begun in 1990 and developed in fits and starts over the next 30 years, Mad God ostensibly tells the story of a lone assassin’s journey into a hellish underworld to detonate a bomb, told with a blend of stop-motion animation and surreal, live-action elements. The film uses minimal dialogue to tell its story and relies instead on a visceral mix of sights and sounds.
From the film’s opening moments, Tippett’s attention to detail in every scene over the film’s 83-minute running time is breathtaking. Everything around The Assassin (as the mysterious figure is simply called) is depicted with a meticulous sense of depth and weight — physical, emotional, and narrative — and each new horror the protagonist experiences is terrifying in a palpable sense. The creatures it encounters on its mission and the gruesome acts of violence they commit feel genuinely horrifying, but the scope of Tippett’s artistic vision and the talent on display makes it impossible to look away.
While Tippet is best known for his work in stop-motion animation and visual effects, his knack for sound editing gets plenty of attention in Mad God, too.
In lieu of traditional dialogue, Mad God relies on looping, distorted audio recordings, and other recycled sounds along with a hefty dose of squishing, squashing, and altogether cringe-inducing audio effects that add a layer of gory realism to the events unfolding on the screen. Tippett leans into the film’s macabre moments with an unbridled enthusiasm — like a child splashing around in the mud, except instead of mud, Tippett’s medium of choice is clay figures and a never-ending supply of fake blood and viscera. The squelching sound of a character mucking about inside another character’s abdominal cavity is juxtaposed against distorted old radio broadcasts or the modulated jabbering of a baby, creating the sort of sensory experience that sweeps you along on Mad God‘s rapidly escalating mindfuck.
While the underlying narrative in the film rarely feels well-defined, it’s enough to link the events unfolding on the screen together for much of the film’s first two acts or so. Any responsibility to preserving that narrative gets dropped late in Mad God, though, which meanders a bit through its final 20-30 minutes. What happens on the screen during that segment is still an amazing spectacle of artistic ability, but occasionally feels a little too disconnected from the early portions of the film — and it likely was, given the film’s long production saga.
Still, Mad God is the sort of film that needs to be seen and experienced (preferably, on a big, beautiful screen) to be truly appreciated for the achievement that it is. Tippett’s film feels like a project three decades in the making, and every moment is brimming with the sort of dedication — and obsession with seeing it through — required to bring a project of this scope and vision to the screen.
Sure, it’s taken a long time to get here, but Mad God makes it abundantly clear that it was time well spent.
Phil Tippett’s Mad God will receive a limited theatrical run beginning June 10 before premiering June 16 on Shudder streaming service.