Today marks the centenary of the death of Arthur Russell Wallace. That name might not ring a bell, but A.R. Wallace was an English naturalist who hit upon a theory of evolution via natural selection at just about the same time as Charles Darwin. In fact, on July 1st of 1858 the pair both presented papers on natural selection before the Linnean Society. In 1859, Darwin would unleash his mammoth On The Origin of Species into the world, thus forever linking his name inextricably with what we now shorthand as the "theory of evolution," but poor Wallace has been largely forgotten.
He has had something of a resurgence of late, with texts aplenty hitting the market trying to reclaim him from the dustbins of history. Now, the New York Times has entered the fray, publishing an "Op-Doc" called The Animated Life of A.R. Wallace. As the Gray Lady seems a bit stingy with her embed codes, the best I can do is link to it here.
The short, co-directed by video journalist Flora Licthman and animator Sharon Shattuck illustrates Wallace's story using a menagerie of brightly colored, endearingly crude cut-out paper stick puppets, and tracks the naturalist's life from his early adventures through to an examination of his legacy. It provides such a deeply immersive experience that it's near-amazing it only runs a little under eight minutes--when my connection to the video stream crashed at a crucial point, I was surprised to see that only three minutes had elapsed.
To narrate Wallace's life, the filmmakers have strung together bites from interviews conducted with engaging scholars George Beccaloni and Andrew Berry, and if one might wish the filmmakers had, given the obvious care lavished on lighting and animating their works of puppetry, spent a hair more time managing the piece's aural backbone (one of the unidentified pair feels distractingly poorly mic'ed), it's a small complaint to lob at a fun and briskly cut track that makes room for the neologism "Eureka-ry moment" as a descriptor for Wallace's malarial fever-dream revelation of natural selection.
Some credit for the film's hypnotic pull is due to Sarah Lipstate's warm sound design which mixes swirling drones and gurgling electronic plunks into an unobtrusive bed for the filmmakers' fantastical puppet playground. But what's perhaps most miraculous about The Animated Life of A.R. Wallace is Licthman and Shattuck's rock solid structuring; they've cut Wallace's story into five chapters, each of which seems to drop in for on a crucial period in the naturalist's life while maintaining their own internal arcs.
This somewhat irate article from The Guardian expands on the Darwin/Wallace story for those who are curious to read more. I'm sure its author has done his research, and is quite correct in how he situates the two naturalists' achievements, but, even so, I'll remember longer the whimsical, daft A.R. Wallace of Shattuck and Lichtman's invention.
Given Shattuck and Licthman's animation seems so clearly indebted to Lotte Reiniger, it's only appropriate to end here: