Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and God Hates Geeks.
A Fool's Paradise
The stop-motion animation utilized in This Magnificent Cake! (Ce Magnifique Gâteau!) is unlike any animated short you’ve seen before. Everything in the short is constructed out of yarn, wool, or some sort of mesh or sewn fabric. This results in everything having this incredible cross thread kind of texture and everything appearing soft to the touch; even glass bottles, paintings, and walls. Hair looks real and flowing water looks like this forever flowing stream of hair. It’s all so unusual yet unique at the same time.
The title may deserve an explanation since it’s never fully explained in the actual short. In the late 19th century, Belgium’s own King Leopold II didn’t want to be outdone by the other European imperial powers that surrounded him. So he declared, “I do not want to miss a good chance of getting us a slice of this magnificent African cake.” The 44-minute animated short Is an anthology of five loosely related stories by theme rather than being directly connected.
The first segment is entitled, “The King’s Dream.” Taking place in 1885, The King is eager to obtain a colony in Africa and he’s finally achieved that goal. He’s haunted by a dream where he’s wandering through the jungle attempting to find the source of someone or something making a, “Hoo-hoo!” noise. The puppets utilized in the short have tiny feet and tiny hands with the only distinction between puppets being the shape of their head, a lack of hair, or a different skin tone. The King has beady eyes that are located too close together on his face, a bushy beard, disheveled bed head, and pajamas that look like a full body skirt made out of a potato sack that only dangle to his upper thigh. The King stumbles onto a giant stone replica of his head. Water shoots out of the stone head’s mouth and then its ears. The King wakes up yelling for his servant George and it’s revealed that he’s wet himself. Now awake, The King gets a case of the hiccups during the discussion of his new African colony. During a musical performance, The King makes the clarinet player cease playing since the clarinet sounds like the noise in his dream.
“The Hotel Pygmy” is the second part of the short. Ota is the first of his tribe to get a job. He works at a hotel in the middle of a jungle located in the Congo. Dressed as a bellhop with an ashtray tied to his head, Ota stands under a sign all day that says, “Cendrier (the French word for ashtray). Ota’s wife and children died in a fire and now he attempts to make money for what remains of his family (his mother and a brother). Ota is distracted by an unsupervised little girl who keeps getting into mischief. A grand piano the little girl was playing with rolls out of a window and lands on top of Ota.
Part three is called, “The Fate of Van Molle.” A once successful Belgian bakery known as the Van Molle Patisserie shockingly declares bankruptcy. Run by two brothers, the older of the two runs off unexpectedly to the new African colony while taking every last cent of the family fortune with him. Tales of the older brother’s success in the jungle would travel all the way back to the village he came from. On the way back from a recent expedition, all of Van Molle’s slaves/assistants fall off a bridge along with all of his discoveries/treasure. He goes crazy on his own and befriends a snail, who he accidentally kills in a rock slide.
The fourth entry is named, “The Lost Porter.” Only one of the slaves survives the fall from the bridge. He holds the severed head of his best friend, who was chained to him. He reminisces of their time together. The clarinet player from the first segment appears and scares the slave with the, “Hoo-hoo!” of his clarinet. The slave falls back into the water and you don’t see him again.
The final installment is known as, “The Deserter.” Louis is expected to turn himself into the army barracks and faces the possibility of spending his life in prison for a desertion incident. Instead, he uses the remains of his savings to travel to the African colony for a job he found in the newspaper. He meets Pierre, the son of the younger Van Molle brother. He intends to confront his uncle about leaving them with nothing while he struck it rich in the colony. Louis and Pierre become friends and Pierre decides to tag along with Louis during his search for work, but Pierre gets ill in the jungle and passes away.
Louis discovers Van Molle’s jungle residence along with the cavern Van Molle was last seen with the snail. In the middle of the cavern’s darkness is a house with its lights on. Inside, Louis finds his parents and he’s suddenly back home again in his own bed. The short acknowledges that this journey hasn’t made any sort of logical sense. Louis dreams of getting an invitation from The King, who he believes would find his African adventures interesting. The short ends with an image Louis sees right before falling to sleep; him kneeling in front of The King and The King telling Louis that he is a very good boy.
This Magnificent Cake! introduces a different kind of stop-motion animation that is interesting to behold to say the least. Its devotion to soft and textured locations, puppets, and objects results in a squishy adventure that is unlike any other. The short’s use of humor intertwined with the bizarre and a hint of the macabre make the animated anthology a fascinating stupor to endure. This Magnificent Cake! tinkers with stories relying on alcohol and a dreamlike sensation that leaves you questioning whether any of this actually took place or if it was all a hallucination.
When we’re just tired enough to question whether an experience was a dream or reality or just drunk enough to attempt to distinguish if that hazy memory was something that occurred recently or if it was just a blurry illusion seems to be what This Magnificent Cake! is aiming for. Anything can happen in that vague and unclear state and This Magnificent Cake! has no issue in not giving its audience any sort of clear answer. The beauty lies within its lack of a definitive resolution, which will leave some frustrated while others will admire the short’s knack for its murky meandering of a series of pipe dreams.
© 2019 Chris Sawin