Combining a magical steampunk design with the gravitas of John Hurt’s vocal ability, this animated short film from writer/director Carlos Stevens is a remarkable, delightful movie. The Alchemist’s Letter tells the parallel stories of a father who gave his memories to a machine that turned any metal into gold and of a son who must decide whether or not to follow in his footsteps.
First of all, it’s gorgeous. There are segments that look as crisp and sharp as museum-hung pastorals and others which thrive on the potent imagination at work inside the machine. As it converts willingly forgotten moments into fortunes, we get to see those memories twist and evolve and transform. They blend into one another before disappearing completely into a beam of light, dancing to a quick rhythm that makes you explicitly aware of what you’ve lost as soon as it’s too late to get it back.
Second of all, Hurt’s narration is unsurprisingly excellent. His voice is like ground-up concrete with chocolate syrup poured over it, a voice meant for campfire storytelling, a voice that matches the magical realism of this short film perfectly.
Some short films make you want to see what happens next. They act as first acts that set up an interesting world or introduce us to a fascinating character. It’s rarer to see a short film that makes you want to see where it came from, but that’s exactly what The Alchemist’s Letter achieves. I want to see who Hurt’s character is, how he built the machine, what it cost him and what he’s learned. This short film is the cherry on top – maybe a middle point between two fantastical tales.
It’s also got some ties to LAIKA, which probably shouldn’t be surprising. Daniel Casey (Boxtrolls, Coraline) acted as art director, and several members of the art department, effects crew and animation department have done work for the inventive animation studio. It’s a solid, stunning team effort.
The Alchemist’s Letter is also a wondrous, small amount of minutes that add up to something big.