A young military veteran, Will, returns home after a stint overseas, having lost both arms during his tour. He’s come home to his wife Rachel, but home feels strange — the place feels different, and he also has a new baby, Amelia.
But the transition isn’t easy, as he grapples phantom pain in his limbs, learning to use prosthetics and adjusting to his new life while trying to cope with his pre-war memories. Will grows increasingly isolated and full of despair, but through reconnecting with his loved ones and learning to accept his past and embrace his future, he finds his way.
Writer-director Devon Manney’s Student Academy Award-winning animated drama is a sensitive and introspective immersion into the difficult transition many veterans make after returning home. Many of them try to equalize towards a new normal, and must grapple with trying to “catch up” to a life that has gone on in their absence. But their psyches — and very often their bodies — also have been reshaped during their time away, making the adjustment even more difficult.
Will’s journey is steadily and gently delineated in the storytelling, each beat focused on his feelings of discombulation, struggle and emotional isolation. Will literally wants to reach out — and in one scene, he wants to pick up his young daughter — but the phantom pain he experiences is a significant barrier to overcome, forcing a wedge between himself and the people around him.
This phantom pain is economically yet powerfully rendered in the film’s animation, making Will’s inner experience visual and electric. In this sense, animation is the perfect medium to convey subjective and psychological experience, making the inner intrusions of Will’s phantom pains into a palpable, outer-facing force that exerts itself, much to Will’s detriment.
The visuals themselves have an elegant and evocating simplicity, paring down Will’s story to its essentials and drawing powerful focus on the veteran’s emotional experience. Combined with the relative realism of the sound design — interpolated with electrical noise for Will’s pain and well-placed use of a beautifully emotional score — the result is a resonant, emotionally powerful experience that gets to the heart of Will’s journey as he struggles to accept his new self, body and life, and find beauty and connection once again.
“Cradle” — which was also shortlisted for the Best Animated Short Oscar in 2017 — is a showcase for animation’s unique gifts as a medium, with its ability to engage the eye and evoke feeling and emotion with focus and economy, and the film’s somber yet gentle style establishes the story’s tone and approach to Will’s story.
With empathy and compassion, the film offers a unique intimate look at what is often an alienating experience. But as Will eventually makes it to the other side, the ending is subtle, well-earned and resonant, because the audience knows just how much Will and veterans like him have struggled — and how much seemingly small victories can feel like huge triumphs in the face of pain and suffering.