Toon of the month: Small People with Hats

Revenge of the underlings? Sarina Nihei’s multi-garlanded graduation short reaches Estonian levels of enigmatic allegory.

Chris Robinson
Updated:

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This video features scenes of cartoon blood-letting.

A cross-continental jaunt between Japan and London via Estonia, Sarina Nihei’s Royal College of Art graduate film Small People with Hats has had a polarising life on the animation-festival circuit. Despite winning Grand Prizes at Ottawa and Holland, the Japanese native’s hypnotic and absurdist tale about a possibly evil group of identical, er, small people with hats has also been rejected by a number of festivals and criticised as a hollow copy of the style and feel of Estonian animation.

There is no doubting the Estonian influence. From the minimalist design and movement to the deadpan characters and absurdist situations, Small People with Hats wouldn’t look out of place on the roster of Estonia’s Joonisfilm studio. Nor does Nihei deny the Estonian influence. “I’ve been influenced by Priit Pärn’s work because he always has strong ideas in terms of making a film, which includes satire and humour,” she tells me. “I like to see black elements in films, but still [have them be] entertaining. Also I just found Estonian language and culture intriguing.”

Nihei’s Estonian crush is by no means unique. The ‘Eesti touch’ (which is really a fusion of Monty Python, Jean-Luc Godard, pop art and Buster Keaton, sprinkled with a pinch of Soviet oppression) has influenced numerous animation shorts in recent years, notably a chunk of Japanese student work, but even some American TV shows (including 1990s kids’ series Rugrats and Aaahh!!! Real Monsters!, as well as more adult fare like Superjail!).

What’s the appeal? Likely the way Estonian artists almost always take on heavy themes (politics, identity) with a smart and dark sense of humour, something sorely lacking in most animation today. As American comedian Louis CK once said, “Everything that’s difficult you should be able to laugh about.”

Small People with Hats, with its cast of cold Keatonesque assholes and comic scenes of bloodshed, murder and betrayal, certainly fits the bill. But this is more than just a clever Estonian cover song. Nihei’s ambiguous narrative (are the small people with hats the villains imposing their will, or in fact the ones being imprisoned and brainwashed?) is complemented by crisp, surprising edits that simultaneously generate humour, horror and mystery (while poking the audience to keep up). And let’s not overlook the movie’s innovative and expressive sound design, a rare feat in this era of talk/music drenched animation, which is so vibrant that it becomes a character of its own.

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