This Magnificent Cake! could stand be fleshed out a bit and its dual metaphors can feel somewhat redundant, but there’s no denying the film’s astounding (arts and) craft work.
With This Magnificent Cake!, stop-motion duo Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels, who keen animation enthusiasts may recognize from this year’s Niki Lindroth von Bahr collaboration The House, spin a yarn (or five; this film is partitioned into five short stories) set amidst the horrors of Belgium’s colonization of Africa. Painstakingly detailed, needle-felted stop motion puppetry is utilized in a surreal depiction of the brutality of 1885 Congo in this twisted storybook of history. The term adult animation is thrown around quite often, and though colloquially it more often means “cartoon with colorful language and perhaps a talking sausage,” speaking thematically, This Magnificent Cake! more than fits the bill of a more nuanced version of the term. Sure, there’s still decapitation and puking puppets, but the horrors of human reality are far scarier than the usual farce.
De Swaef and Roels are not unfamiliar with the balancing act of twee and twisted. Their craft store-pastiche style comes fully-realized from short-form work, like the felt phallus fancy in Oh Willy…‘s tale of a nudist colony; their form can unravel, soften, and knit back together the fibers of animation. Under this cloth-edition of colonialism, land is but a skein of yarn ripe for purchase with a buy-one-get-one-free coupon at Hobby Lobby. Culture, community, and commodity are all pulled from the same tufts of fiber, with puppet figures made of the same material as the scenery.
The layer-cake of dual metaphor, both the whimsical grade-school language of the colonialist scramble for Africa regarded as the cutting of a cake, and the visual cloth commodity of the continent, does edge on conceptual blurriness. The dueling symbolism fills the same purpose, and in using both to contrast the overt cruelty of Belgian imperialism with sugary-sweet childlike imagery the film can err on redundancy; could medium or textual allegory alone accomplish this same purpose more clearly? Or worse, does the Wes Anderson indie quirk (snails and clarinets abound!) border on insensitivity?
But ambition so often dominates consideration, and the scale of this project is no exception. The effect created via the warm, inviting textures is brutal when seen through the eyes of the celebrated nation it springs from. To the Belgian colonizing powers depicted, the people, resources, and fabric of reality are all the same, only differing in individual monetary values, and this whole world to them is ripe for purchase. That visual unity is dark, but a fantastic integration and proof of the necessity of animation as a tool for storytelling. Early viewers expressed concerns that the colonized people of cloth-Congo seem little more than object for most of the stories, and questioned whether the cruelty shown was enough to not indicate imperialist sympathies. On the contrary, the Belgian invaders are often self-immolating (or simply bed-wetters), and the nuance instead rests in the complicity of a nation.
In an era of VFX sweatshops and corner-cutting in digital animation, traditional animation techniques, let alone stylistic vision, seem rarer than ever. Hollywood animation (and Western, in general) is treated as more of a genre formulated for and targeting children than a tool for creative storytelling. This Magnificent Cake! pairs well with its creators’ preferred medium because its icy humor never makes the subject matter feel dissident from that form. A Trojan horse of sorts, the plush figurines create a shield as inviting as a plate of fluffy Belgian waffles, painting a kinder contemporary experience to situate the brutality of history within.
Clocking in at under an hour, the omnibus of stories here are more connected by setting than anything, and the individual vignettes seem too short to generate sufficient standalone strength for the scope of the story the directors’ wish to tell. Constraints of budget and the sheer amount of time needed for hand animation are evident, and there’s no denying that This Magnificent Cake! would benefit from either fleshing out its original stories to a larger scale, or including a few more short vignettes (perhaps from the Congolese side) to commit to its broad-scope approach. Still, the [arts and] craft is on display is astounding, making for a rather dizzying viewing experience, one that leaves viewers awash in visual detail, be it the texture of ripples on water or the exquisite details in everything from the toilets to the paintings on the walls.
You can stream Emma De Swaef & Marc James Roels’ This Magnificent Cake! on Mubi beginning on August 26.