Girl Without Hands

"Girl Without Hands" reimagines an old German folk tale with hand-drawn animation.

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Sébastien Laudenbach’s animated film “The Girl Without Hands” is based on a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm, and there’s a reason why you probably haven’t come across this one in a bedtime storybook. It’s pretty violent; the title is not a metaphor.

It’s also not a tale that can sustain a 72-minute movie, although “The Girl Without Hands” is not without interest, largely because of Lauderbach’s vibrant and unorthodox style of animation. The film has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art Spotlight Cinema series.

In the story, a poor mill owner (voiced by Oliver Broche) is approached by the devil (Laudenbach’s father Philippe, and isn’t that an interesting bit of casting?) with an offer. If the miller gives the devil the tree behind his mill, the devil will make the mill run with liquid gold instead of water.

The miller jumps at the offer, forgetting that, as always, the devil is literally in the details. In this case, it’s the fact that the miller’s daughter (Anais Demoustier) is a nature lover who happens to be in the tree. The daughter’s purity protects her from the devil’s advances, but then the devil forces the miller to chop his daughter’s hands off. (Did I mention this is no bedtime story?)

The miller agrees, and the handless damsel staggers off into the forest, where she is rescued by a handsome prince, who makes her a pair of solid gold hands. They marry and have a child, but this is no “happily ever after.” The maiden must decide her own fate, whether to stay as the kept wife of a rich man, or return to the forest that has been the only real home for her.

With dialogue and characterization at a minimum, the real draw of “The Girl Without Hands” is the visuals. The animation looks as if Laudenbach’s personal sketchbook has erupted into life on the screen, with impressionistic flourishes. Characters are often sketched with just a few quick lines that suggest the rest of the figure, while the nature scenes are painted in thick, lush brushstrokes. Occasionally, drawings are laid on top of each other to provide the illusion of depth, but otherwise this is a refreshingly minimalist two-dimensional approach.

That minimalism extends to the thin story, which moves slowly and solemnly. As a showcase for Laudenbach’s animation, “The Girl Without Hands” is worth a watch. But a 20- or 30-minute version of the same story would have been stronger.

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.