With My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, comic book artist/writer Dash Shaw is making his feature length animation debut. His roots show through in the visuals, and for that alone the film is worth seeing. However, the mileage gained from these visuals will vary depending upon the tastes of the viewer. As somewhat of a cynic toward animated films, I found myself somewhere in the middle, sinking into my own sea of non-committal response.
When it comes to feature length animation, filmmakers are automatically at a handicap. Animation is, to a degree, very much about spectacle, but if a filmmaker leans too heavily on visuals, it may be at the expense of story. On the other hand, if they lean too heavily on story, it will automatically beg the question of “why did this have to be animated?”
This puts Dash Shaw in an uncomfortable position. Of COURSE he wants to showcase his beautiful artistry, but he also wants to tell a story with a level of resonance. My Entire High School Sinking Under the Sea walks the middle ground on both counts, and while it moves very fast and is frequently quite funny, it ultimately feels pointless. Still, it’s the kind of film that begs to be seen on the big screen, granted you’re into this sort of thing.
The animation style is wickedly creative, borrowing from the drawings of Daniel Clowes and the films of Ralph Bakshi, with even a few touches of Bill Plympton here and there (most notably in the moments where viscera gives way to abstraction). This is used to depict a series of action set-pieces interspersed with short exposition dumps, all involving some decidedly un-involving characters. It moves too quickly to get boring, and there are plenty blink-and-you-miss-it moments worth noting, but often the style of the animation, beautiful as it is, undercuts the clarity required to create a compelling sequence.
Maybe that’s the rub. It’s all fun, but never compelling.
The title covers the plot perfectly: A high school located right above a fault line is set adrift after a minor earthquake. Dash, our lead and presumable author surrogate, is the only student who saw it coming. During a research session for a smear piece intended against his former best friend, he stumbles across a document indicating weaknesses in the school’s infrastructure. Before anything can be put to print the school begins to crumble, and its denizens immediately break into perverted versions of the standard social hierarchy, and since each floor corresponds with a grade level (seniors on top), the film attempts to vertically mimic Snowpiercer, only spending much less time fleshing it all out, therefore being much less successful. Each scene conjures a standard disaster film trope, but before each individual sandbox can be properly played in, we’re already brought to the next one. It’s like watching someone play a really easy video game.
But it’s also like watching a geeky graphic novel come to life, so I suspect Shaw’s fans will be more charmed than I was (this is my first exposure to his work), and more in tune with the pacing.
Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, Susan Sarandon, Lena Dunham, Maya Rudolph and John Cameron Mitchell all bring chutzpah to the voice work, and almost all of them managed to get at least one big laugh from this sad sack over here (gestures to self, knocks over glass of water), but it’s pretty clear that their vocal tracks were recorded separately. It’s hard to be too critical, nature of the animation beast and all, but comic timing is something which can almost never be created in editing, and many jokes either miss the landing or trip over themselves to be heard.
It sounds like I’m hating. I’m not. I mostly enjoyed the film, and at 75 minutes it’s certainly never in danger of wearing out its welcome. Even if it were a massive epic, it would never run the risk of running out of imagination, and now that we live in a world where studios can pump out high-quality, broad-minded animation at an insane clip, you gotta respect the scrappy indie cartoon with its own distinct style.
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.