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Girl Without Hands, The (2017)

Once upon a time, there lived a poor miller and his family. With their river run dry, the family has little else to eat but the apples from their apple tree. Until one day, a mysterious old man offers the miller a chance to inherit an incredible fortune. All in exchange for his beautiful daughter. The old man, revealed to be a shape shifting demon, eventually comes to claim his end of the bargain but is disgusted by the girl's purity. Though she tries to escape this terrible fate, the devil punishes her by cutting off her hands. Abandoned by her father and on the run from the devil, the girl must find a way to survive. All without the use of her hands.

The Girl Without Hands is a french animated film created by Sebastian Laudenbach, based off the Brothers Grimm fairy tale of the same name. The film was created through a series of paintings crafted and edited together by Sebastian along with Clorinde Baldassari and Santi Minasi (The former being a compositing director, the latter a film editor). This is Sebastian's first feature length film after a series of successful animated short films. The Girl Without Hands first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and has received both nominations and awards from both the Cesar Awards and The Annecy Film Festival. The film has since been picked up for American distribution by GKIDS and will soon see a limited time screenings across select theaters for the summer of 2017.

The narrative art of fairy tales and the visual art of animation have a lot in common. They test the imagination, explore the human experience with their engaging stories, and were originally designed as entertainment for adults. But through the passage of time, both forms of entertainment began to be perceived as kids fare by the general public. Though the shift was not a terrible change (as both could reach an even wider audience) the idea of seeing a classic fairy tale, packed with grim realities of the time period it was created for, brought to life by a big time studio would be nigh on impossible nowadays.

It is for this reason, that I find The Girl Without Hands to be one of the most refreshing animated films I have seen this year.

From the very moment the film begins, its flowing paint brush animation style sets it apart from many of its competitors. What makes it stand out is how the style brings out the detail in the drawings yet, at the same time, leaves certain details or movements out. Sometimes shifting back and forth between the two. Giving the illusion that the drawings are always moving, even when the characters are standing still.

This improvised style is described by Sebastian himself as, "drawings that are light and scattered with holes, which very often finds its consistency when it is put into movement..."

It is these "holes" in the film's images, according to Sebastian, that gives them infinite potential. Inviting the imagination of the audience to "fill in the gaps" of what they don't see.

An animation style that, in its own way, reflects the interpretive nature of the literary genre it is trying to represent. Stories that are full of detailed settings and events but also left many undefined elements left for the reader's imagination. The film's animation even goes one step further but taking advantage of its paint rendered images, offering almost dream like scene transitions. Though my favorite example of the style comes when the design of the characters are exaggerated in order to reflect said characters emotional state (much in the same vein as the famous running scene from the Tale of Princess Kaguya).

The story, much like the fairy tale it is based on, is straightforward but compelling. Full of dark twists and unpleasant images, yet balanced out by moments of peace.  Following the traumatic loss of her hands, the film pulls no punches in depicting the unnamed girl's struggle to adapt to her condition. This explored through the visuals (with little to no dialogue) as we watch her frustrations to feed herself, bathe and even holding her infant child. Yet no matter what challenges come her way, she never backs down or gives up. Her quiet determination and defiance of the devil pursuing her gives the character an air of strength that is always entertaining to see in a female protagonist.

With an imaginative animation style and a strong female heroine, The Girl Without Hands is a film that comes easy to recommend to fairy tale and animation fans the world over. A film that respects its source material beyond simple execution, but also in its visual style. Some may find the darker aspects of the story unpleasant or the style lacking, but if you take it as a simple coming of age story, you'll enjoy it just fine. As a fan of fairy tales, I was really blown away by the work Sebastian and his team put in to telling this relatively unknown classic, and I will definitely be keeping an eye on his future works.

FORMATSLimited Time Screening
RATINGThis film is not yet rated
80 minutes