Although research has started to prove that the saying ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ isn’t entirely true, I certainly feel like my capacity to learn has diminished with age. Whether this is a psychological hurdle or a physical change (again, studies point to the former) I’m not sure, but if someone was to offer me extra mental capacity, I’d certainly take it. For Matilda, the central character in Ignas Meilūnas’ lovable stop-motion Matilda ir atsarginė galva (Matilda and the Spare Head), when her passion for learning results in her cerebral storage maxing out, her Mum solves the problem with the purchase of a new head.
Based on Miloš Macourek’s children’s story Jakub a dvě stě dědečků (Jakub and two hundred grandfathers) Meilūnas’ 13-minute short introduces us to its titular character as we see her devout study session interrupted when a rogue football flies through the window and lands on her open book. Matilda regards the ball like a foreign object, as if she’s never seen one before, and after her mother has punctured it with a pencil before returning it to its owners, we’re left with no doubt as to the type of childhood the film’s protagonist has.
As the narrative expands and we witness Matilda earn another perfect score from her teacher, for a presentation on crocodiles, we discover that under the tutelage of her pushy mother, she dreams of becoming the smartest girl in the world. To do this, she studies…A LOT! Until one day, when swatting up for her next presentation, on polar bears, her brain short circuits and her mother is forced to come up with a solution – a new head! From here on the problems begin, as Matilda needs the two different heads for different tasks and although her mother isn’t satisfied with the situation, her daughter soon begins to understand there are more important things in life.
It’s an effective storyline. Simple enough for kids to get the message, but complex enough for adults to also take something away from it. The humour also works for both young and old, the headmaster entering the class singing Crocodile Shoes is funny for anyone of an age to get the reference, but also just naturally comedic because of his energetic entrance and unusual footwear choice. It’s this universal appeal that’s made Matilda and the Spare Head such a hit on the festival circuit, having played Annecy, Encounters, Oberhausen, Ottawa and many, many more.
The visuals are also a major factor in the allure of the short and despite this being Meilūnas’ first time working with puppets, the craft is really impressive. The character design, much like the narrative, isn’t too complicated for kids to enjoy but also has enough eccentricities for an adult audience to get a kick out of. It’s the attention to detail in the production that makes it truly noteworthy though, from the characters’ cute footwear to the houseplants that adorn Matilda’s home, it’s a characteristic world full of charm, which is so easy to get lost in.
Having won the Best Animation for Young Audiences: Ages 6-12 Award at OIAF 2020, following the success of Matilda and the Spare Head Meilūnas is already working on two new stop-motion shorts. Keep an eye out for those on the festival circuit soon.