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Review: ‘This Magnificent Cake!’ explores Belgian colonialism through animation

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The animated film “This Magnificent Cake!” explores the cruelty of Belgians in the Congo.
(GKIds)

“This Magnificent Cake!,” a stop-motion film written and directed by Marc James Roels and Emma de Swaef, is a series of feverish meditations on a brutal episode in African history.

In 1885, Leopold II of Belgium, seeking “a slice of this magnificent African cake,” became de facto owner of much of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The rubber, ivory and precious metals taken from the Congo made Leopold fabulously wealthy, but millions of Congolese died from overwork, torture and disease until their hellish exploitation was exposed in 1904.

In a series of linked episodes, the filmmakers explore the thoughtless cruelty of the European grifters. Leopold, haunted by nightmares, takes out his discomfort on a hapless Belgian musician who flees to Africa. At a luxurious hotel that serves as a gateway to the jungle, the heir to a well-known bakery absconds with the family funds and begins a life of drunken dissolution, while a nasty child pushes a piano over a railing, crushing a native servant.

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The animation is minimal, but the cloth faces of the puppets seem to change expression as light plays over them, creating an unsettling vitality. The overscaled hallways and caverns increase the sense of alienation: The characters are as vapid as the hotel that symbolizes the colonial regime.

At 44 minutes, “This Magnificent Cake” may be a long short or a short feature. Either way, it’s an intriguing, disturbing film, utterly unlike American studio animation.

Screening with “Cake” are two other stop-motion shorts. In “Oh Willy … ,” also by Roels and de Swaef, a chubby little man copes with memories and nightmares, including the appearance of a surprisingly maternal yeti, after his mother dies in a nudist colony.

Niki Lindroth von Bahr’s “The Burden,” from Sweden, depicts groups of anthropomorphized animals performing strange musical numbers. The storytelling is minimal, but the animation is often appealing, especially a pair of tap-dancing mice who execute a snazzy buck-and-wing while cleaning a fast-food outlet.

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‘This Magnificent Cake!’

In French and Dutch with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Glendale

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