Based upon an old German fairy tale as collected by the Brothers Grimm, The Girl Without Hands is a French animated film with a lot of heart and a unique sense of style.
The devil (Phillippe Laudenbach) appears to a poor miller (Olivier Broche) and makes him a deal. For the small price of what’s behind his mill, the devil will make him rich. Knowing that only an old tree lies behind his mill, the miller agrees. Soon liquid gold begins flowing through his mill, making him richer than his wildest dreams. When the devil comes to collect, the miller is shocked to find that his daughter (Anaïs Demoustier) - has been playing in the tree and thus is part of the bargain. The Devil does not collect his prize then but promises to come back.
Time passes and the miller and his daughter becomes incredibly rich. Everything shines because everything is made out of gold. But the devil comes back to collect what is due. The girl (she is never named, the credits call her Young Girl) is too clean, too pure for the Devil to take in whole so he demands the miller cut off her hands. The miller balks but when the devil declares he will take away all of the gold, he relents and the axe comes out.
Despondent that her father would do such a thing, the girl runs away and finds life unbearably hard to live without hands. One day, she finds some pears growing in a garden and tries to cross the river to get to them. The current is too strong and she goes down. Instead of death at the bottom of the river, she finds a goddess who tells her that the pears belong to a prince but he will not mind if she eats of his fruit. Indeed, he does not and he also takes her in and marries her. Life is wonderful for a time, but war comes to the prince’s lands and he must leave. The baby grows in the girl’s belly and when she gives birth, the devil plays his tricks again and she is forced to flee the castle. It ends happily which may be a change from the usual grim ending of these (non Disneyfied) Grimm tales. It is a lesser known fairytale but it feels familiar. It's similar to dozens of stories we've all heard when we were children and its morals (greed is bad, never make a deal with the devil) are a bit too simple for modern times. It would be enjoyable but forgettable were it not for the ingenious animation.
It mixes a multilayered pencil and painting technique with computer animation to create something completely modern that looks somehow ancient. The brush strokes are thick with a calligraphy style that hints at impressionism. The backgrounds, full of trees, mountains, and water, are bold in style but often vague in details. The foreground characters warble on the screen. Their lines come and go from moment to moment and sometimes they seem to disappear all together before reappearing a second later. It would be easy to think that the animators were simply not careful, paying little attention to each frame and leaving out lines here and there, but as the movie continues, you realize there is an intentional to these fluttering lines. This non-traditional form follows the characters' emotional state, the lines fluctuate when a character feels fear or anger or love.
It is beautifully and sometimes distractingly rendered. I found myself so entranced with the images, immersing myself in the visual style, that I often forgot to read the subtitles and follow the story. The effect is quite mesmerizing. Because of this, I sometimes did find myself a little lost as to what was happening on screen and at times was ready for something more to happen. But mostly, I was completely awestruck by its beauty.
Extras on the Blu-ray brought to you by GKIDS and Shout Factory! include a making-of feature that details how the film was brought from fairy tale to screen, an interview with director Sebastian Laudenbach and a series of short films made by the director. The Girl Without Hands is not your typical family-friendly animated movie. It deals with some dark themes and its distinctive style will surely throw some people off. But for those looking for something more in their “cartoons,” this has a lot to offer and is a delight to watch.