Many, if not most, animated shorts are dialogue-free. For reasons of either universality or cost or just the joy of telling stories through physical expression alone, dialogue is a secondary tool for independent animators. Sharon Smith’s A Recipe for Gruel takes the opposite tack, anchoring itself to a spoken word piece by Frank Key. The words are strong enough to stand alone—as a radio broadcast, the piece would still work. But Smith’s illustrations take Key’s bleak story (dryly funny as it is) and gives it humanity, and in the process transforms a satirical dystopia into something more affecting.

Smith has worked as a 2D animator and story artist for Richard Williams and Tim Burton, among others, so it’s no surprise that her work here is impeccable. The two characters in the piece (the old woman and the chicken) are both simply designed and expressive; their emotions are easily readable even from minor gestures, which is important since they have to work as a counterpoint to the narration. The town they live in is impressively readable, too—even though only a few locations are shown and are universally grey and drab, it never feels incomplete, more like it’s just glimpsed.

It’s difficult to take a work that is complete on its own and make it into something distinct, but that’s just what Smith does with A Recipe for Gruel. And, as much as this is an odd thing to say of a glimpse into a tyrannical regime, it’s a joy to watch.

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