Consuming Spirits: An Animated Tale of Adultery and Murder

Feature-length animation has become a monopoly for Disney and Pixar, while basically nothing is made for adults. At a typical cartoon matinee, you buy tickets for your kids, load them up on popcorn and soda, then retreat to the lobby to check penny stocks or Facebook on your phone. Japanese anime is for teens. What's left for us grown-ups?

Created over 15 years by Chicago artist Chris Sullivan, Consuming Spirits is a handmade work, its animation rendered in three distinct styles. From above, we see the Appalachian town of Magguson as a tiny stop-motion diorama of toy cars, plastic cows, and paper-walled houses, their windows warmly glowing with candlelight. Flashbacks are black-and-white sketches, haltingly animated like the preliminary "roughs" seeking final expression. The present players are paper-cut marionettes with flapping jaws and pivot-dangling limbs. The three main characters gain personality from their voices, but there's also a visual depth to their tale of alcoholism, adultery, and broken families, as Sullivan layers foreground and background animation on separate sheets of glass.

Sullivan gives voice to newspaper layout artist Victor, who composes his pages with an X-Acto knife and blocks of text ("consuming spirits" among them, its meaning signifying both booze and ghosts). Victor's sometime girlfriend Gentian is a bus driver who runs down a nun, whom—presumably dead—she drags into the woods. But ghosts haunt Magguson: Not just the nun, but lost mothers and sisters roam the hills—along with a bizarre figure wearing a deer hide and horns. The town's most haunted figure is old Earl (wonderfully voiced by Robert Levy), whose radio show strays far from gardening and into darker groves of memory and guilt.

Consuming Spirits plays like an old, weird folk tune (Victor and Gentian are also musicians), with strange harmonies of murder, madness, and incest. On the hillbilly soundtrack, Sullivan sings, "I'm too old to change/And too young to die," which is essentially Earl's motto. And when the sins of the past catch up with him, there will be no easy atonement.

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