In filmmaking, circumstances create techniques, which in turn result in artistic innovation. Some of the most original independent films in recent decades—those of Joe Swanberg, for instance—have forged new modes of production out of economic and practical constraints, and these alternative practices have also given rise to original cinematic aesthetics. A new animated project, “Tux and Fanny,” does something similar in the realm of animation; lacking conventional modes of production or distribution (as too many independent filmmakers today do), its writer and director, Albert Birney, has devised his own ingenious homemade ones—and the results are as inspired and imaginative as the method. “Tux and Fanny” began as a series of seventy-nine micro-shorts, each about a minute long, posted on Instagram. It is realized mainly with a simple Atari-style color-field technique, which renders its action with the pixelated abstraction of Pac-Man figures. Together, the episodes amount to a feature film, which is now available to stream on Vimeo; it’s also available for purchase—as a VHS tape.
“Tux and Fanny” is no mere low-budget stunt; Birney is the co-director of “Sylvio,” the tale of a talented gorilla in Baltimore, which is one of the most gleefully imaginative homemade features of recent years (and which started as a Vine series). “Tux and Fanny” is similarly inventive, warm-hearted, speculative, and sweetly exquisite. Its monochrome protagonists are essentially humanoid gingerbread cookies, who move with a stark and jittery simplicity that conveys a similarly stark and frank emotionalism. The pink Tux speaks in a resonant bass voice; Fanny, who’s purple, speaks in higher, reedier tones; and both of them speak Russian throughout. (The movie is subtitled in English.) The feature is episodic, following Tux and Fanny, who share a small house and sleep in separate beds in one bedroom, through adventures that quickly veer toward the surreal and the whimsically macabre. Its tone brings to mind Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad” series of children’s books, though it’s not a children’s movie.
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The action is launched when the friends find and adopt a black cat, which they name Sasha; Tux does so without hesitation, but Fanny worries that the stray will bring fleas into their home. That’s what happens (the insects are depicted with blunt humor), and their intrusion leads to discomfort, which leads to remedies, which lead to inconveniences, which lead to a calmly horrific mutilation, all of which the friends find a way to accommodate in the placid rounds of their daily lives—and even turn to their own modest advantage. In this regard, “Tux and Fanny” harks back to the temporary calamities of classic Looney Tunes, where catastrophic injuries are instantaneously overcome and the action continues. In Birney’s film, the catastrophes are no less dire—but how the characters cope with and repair the damage is a matter of meticulous drama.
The thought that goes into this work is brought out from behind the curtain and rendered in the movie’s blunt and trenchant dialogue (to which the subtitles lend a distinctive, graphic, and literary impact). Tux is philosophically speculative, delivering aphoristic riffs that reveal Kierkegaardian abysses in such daily trivialities as a campfire, and mini marshmallows in cocoa. Fanny is physically more capable, more practically active and self-aware, and also more immediately empathetic, to great dramatic moment. She often wonders about other lives and other modes of existence—and Birney conjures the inner lives of creatures and substances (birds and bugs, wood and water, and pixels themselves) that she imagines, launching the film into astonishing realms of visionary delight. (One of the most ingenious and moving moments involves the revelations afforded by a new pair of eyeglasses.)
The film’s idiosyncratic twists of plot give rise to ingenious stylistic inventions. For instance, when Fanny thinks that she has lost Tux and fashions herself a new Tux made of clay, Birney blends the pixel art of the protagonists’ world with fingerprinted Claymation (and the clay Tux brings a distinctive, melancholy tone to the tale as well). Elsewhere, Tux and Fanny’s leisurely wanderings to a nearby pond yield a choreographed chorus of singing ducks. Another stroll leads to a taxonomy of fantasy birds with names and appearances of comedic extravagance. Other outings involve an Icarus-like flight across the sun, a river journey with references to “Night of the Hunter,” dream sequences (including one that the friends share), and a variety of hallucinations (including drug-induced ones).These extravagant visions rely on a similarly extravagant range of animation techniques, involving cellophane and fur, hand-drawing, metallic sculptures, watercolors, and costumed live-action figures reminiscent of those in “Sylvio.”
Birney’s direction, for all its giddy inventiveness, is also precise and emotionally calibrated. The characters’ motions and positioning offer sentimental pangs along with wonder. His closeups deliver plangent details that are both humanly intimate (small puddles of tears and reflections of campfires in the eyes) and endowed with a virtually painterly joy in nature (clouds, sky, trees, animals, insects, meteorological extremes, and imaginary constellations, rendered in boldly juxtaposed colors). It’s also a film of mysticism, magic, and private mythology; yet its range of moods and details, of tender inventions and phantasmagorical extravagances, are centered on the bedrock of an unshakable friendship that withstands dire circumstances and, against comically grim odds, endures.
The delights of “Tux and Fanny” are tinged with the unpleasant fact that it isn’t in commercial distribution—it was put out, as episodes, for free, and the feature itself is offered free as well. Its trio of executive producers includes Dan Schoenbrun and Vanessa McDonnell, who are also among the producers of the five-part anthology film “collective:unconscious,” from 2016, which was also put online for free (and had only a nominal, hardly publicized theatrical release). Despite its noncommercial availability, that movie reached the collective consciousness, albeit indirectly: its episode “Everybody Dies,” by Nuotama Frances Bodomo, was prominently included in Terence Nance’s HBO series “Random Acts of Flyness.” As for “Tux and Fanny,” its animation is far more imaginative and more inspired than the clangorous gyrations of last year’s Oscar winner, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Without a theatrical release, “Tux and Fanny” can’t qualify for an Oscar (the Academy serves mainly to protect multiplexes and their movies against the competition), but I hope that it will find its rightfully exalted place in the company of viewers—and perhaps even critics—unswayed by the asterisks of studio filmmaking.