Watch The Meaning of Life: One of the Best Animated Short Films Ever Made Traces the Evolution of Life, the Universe & Beyond

They say cre­ativ­i­ty is born of lim­i­ta­tions. If that’s true, then is any ani­ma­tor work­ing today more cre­ative than Don Hertzfeldt? “The stars of his movies are all near-fea­ture­less stick­men with dots for eyes and a sin­gle line for a mouth,” writes The Guardian’s David Jenk­ins in an appre­ci­a­tion of Hertzfeldt, whose “method of mak­ing grand exis­ten­tial state­ments with almost reck­less­ly mod­est means” — ani­mat­ing every­thing him­self, and doing it all with tra­di­tion­al hand-draw­ing-and-film-cam­era meth­ods that at no point involve com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed imagery — “has made his cin­e­mat­ic oeu­vre one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing and enjoy­able of all con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can direc­tors.”

As an exam­ple Jenk­ins holds up 2005’s The Mean­ing of Life, which “tack­led noth­ing less than the nature of organ­ic life in the known uni­verse, address­ing the painstak­ing devel­op­ment of the human form through a series of (often high­ly amus­ing) Dar­win­ian trans­mu­ta­tions.”

You can glimpse its four-year-long ani­ma­tion process, which appears to have been almost as painstak­ing, in time-lapse mak­ing-of doc­u­men­tary Watch­ing Grass Grow. At Short of the Week, Rob Mun­day writes that, though The Mean­ing of Life takes on “a sub­ject already famil­iar to the for­mat (evo­lu­tion has also been por­trayed in short film by ani­ma­tors Michael MillsClaude Clouti­er and I’m sure many more),” it also sees Hertzfeldt adding “his own dis­tinct take to pro­ceed­ings with his unmis­tak­able style and injec­tions of dark humor.”

That spe­cial brand of humor has long been famil­iar to the many view­ers who have stum­bled across Hertzfeldt’s ear­li­er Reject­ed, a short com­posed of even short­er shorts orig­i­nal­ly com­mis­sioned — and, yes, reject­ed — by the Fam­i­ly Learn­ing Chan­nel. As one of the first ani­ma­tions to “go viral” in the Youtube era, Reject­ed not only made Hertzfeldt’s name but paved the way for projects at once more ambi­tious, more sur­re­al, more com­ic, and more seri­ous: take the 65-minute It’s Such a Beau­ti­ful Day, which fol­lows one of his sig­na­ture stick­men into pro­longed neu­ro­log­i­cal decline. The Mean­ing of Life might seem pos­i­tive by com­par­i­son, but its cos­mic sweep belies Hertzfeldt’s under­ly­ing cri­tique of all that evo­lu­tion has pro­duced. As Jenk­ins para­phras­es it,  “Were we real­ly worth all that effort?”

The Mean­ing of Life–which Time Out New York named the film one of the “thir­ty best ani­mat­ed short films ever made”–has been added to our list of Free Ani­ma­tions, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Ani­mat­ed Films: From Clas­sic to Mod­ern 

Watch 66 Oscar-Nom­i­nat­ed-and-Award-Win­ning Ani­mat­ed Shorts Online, Cour­tesy of the Nation­al Film Board of Cana­da

Carl Sagan Explains Evo­lu­tion in an Eight-Minute Ani­ma­tion

Alan Watts Dis­pens­es Wit & Wis­dom on the Mean­ing of Life in Three Ani­mat­ed Videos

Why Man Cre­ates: Saul Bass’ Oscar-Win­ning Ani­mat­ed Look at Cre­ativ­i­ty (1968)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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