The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb
A twitchy fairy tale of bleakness and despair
The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb
Manga Entertainment
Directed by Dave Borthwick
UK, 1993
The story of the title character begins as a woman gives birth to a mutant son who stands but a few inches tall. She and her husband, both extremely poor, shower Tom with love and devotion--until mysterious men in black burst in one day and take Tom away. This is where his adventures really begin.

Tom is spirited away to a secret laboratory, where he and other misshapen creatures are poked, prodded, and hideously experimented upon. During his testing, he discovers that his grief-stricken mother has died. He manages to escape with the help of a bizarre cyborg lizard, but not before pulling the plug on the other captives, ending their nightmarish existence. He meets up with a race of people just like himself, and buddies up with the one known as Jack the Giant Killer. Tom is eventually reunited with his despondent father, but their happiness is brief--more tragedy lies ahead for everyone.

The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb's world is profoundly disturbing to watch. The sets are crammed with junk, and are teeming with bugs of every kind--which isn't surprising, since everywhere except the laboratory seems to be covered in grime. Every living thing--and many of the non-living ones--is animated in stop-motion, including the human beings. (Technically, animating humans this way is referred to as pixillation, but the technique is pretty much the same.) The net effect is that the "real" people are constantly twitching and jerking, while the "unreal" people are a bit more natural. Dialogue is also spare; what few intelligible words are said are sprinkled among the grunts, moans and groans that pass for speech.

The characters' spasmodic motions and the overwhelming pessimism of the film sometimes makes it difficult to empathize with any of the characters. Rather than feeling shock or horror when someone dies, one is almost tempted to be happy for an end to the poor sod's suffering. Strangely enough, it's hardest to feel anything for Tom, who spends most of the film stumbling around, eyes wide with constant disbelief.

Still, the film is definitely worth watching. Although sometimes confusing and often disturbing, it serves as a reminder that animation does not have to be relentlessly happy, and can be just as effective in probing the darker recesses of human imagination.

Originally printed in the Montreal Mirror (May 8, 1997)
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