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Animals: San Sebastian Review

Animals Still - H 2012

The Bottom Line

Ambitious Catalan psychological fantasy has flair to burn but strains too hard for hipster-cult status.

Director

Marçal Forés

Cast

Oriol Pla, Augustus Prew, Roser Tapias, Martin Freeman

Screenwriters

Marçal Forés, Enric Pardo, Aintza Serra

Oriol Pla, Augustus Prew and Martin Freeman star alongside a talking teddy bear in Marçal Forés dark psychological fantasy from Catalonia.

A self-satisfied slice of quirky Catalan cool, Animals boasts flashes of brilliance but squanders considerable potential on a waywardly sophomoric script. Sales prospects for the slick-looking feature debut of Barcelona's Marçal Forés are boosted by a photogenic young cast, the large amount of English-language dialogue and the unexpected presence in a supporting role of popular British star Martin Freeman - Bilbo Baggins in the upcoming Hobbit trilogy.

But while combining Ted and Donnie Darko - with touches of Afterschool and Ghost World - sounds like a promising concept on paper, the results are too strenuously weird for anything other than marginal youth interest. Best suited for midnight slots at festivals, Animals premiered in San Sebastian's Kutxa New Directors competition and has a Dutch theatrical release penciled in for April 2013. prospects both home and abroad will depend on the reception to its Gala presentation at Catalonia's influential, fantasy-themed event at Sitges in early October. Long-term it appeals as more of a download/VOD and DVD title than as a viable distribution candidate, though it may eventually accrue the cult following Forés so shamelessly covets.

Director/co-writer Forés trained at both Barcelona's ESCAC and London's NFTS - likewise his precociously gifted cinematographer Eduard Grau, who caught international attention thanks to his work on Tom Ford's A Single Man and has already explored the wilder margins of Catalan auteur cinema via Albert Serra's Honor of the Knights (2006) and Sergio Caballero's Rotterdam Tiger winner Finisterrae (2011).

Like Caballero, Forés ambitiously juggles demands of narrative development along with evocations of hallucinatory dreamscapes. But Caballero, who waited until he was in his mid-forties to make Finisterrae, struck that tricky balance with a humor and elegance that largely elude his younger compatriot. Having graduated from some well-received shorts - including Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! (2004) and Friends Forever (2007) - via an hour-long BBC pilot, The Things I Haven't Told You (2008), Forés' chief stylistic influence now seems to be the Richard Kelly of Donnie Darko, which likewise plunged viewers into the heightened, sometimes nightmarish world of its troubled post-adolescent hero.

Pol (Oriol Pla) attends a private, English-language high-school where he's part of a tight, hip-nerd mini-clique with Laia (Rosier Tapias) and Mark (Dimitri Leonidas). At home, he has minimal interaction with his much older brother, cop Llorenç (Javier Beltrán) - there's neither sign nor mention of their parents - and spends most of his time broodingly listening to or playing alt-rock music. His closest companion is Deerhoof, a walking, sentient teddy bear who speaks haltingly vocoderized English and whose supernatural abilities are - unlike Seth MacFarlane's much earthier Ted - always explicitly presented as a figment of Pol's overactive, immature imagination. Concerned at his brother's arrested development, Llorenç counsels that it's time to put away childish things such as Deerhoof, just as the arrival of hunky new-boy-on-campus Inaki (Augustus Prew) drives the sexually-confused Pol closer towards full-blown existential crisis.

Animals might have worked if Forés had kept things simpler in terms of plots, characters and subplots, but the profusion of writers and editors - three of each are credited - hints at a project struggling to find proper focus within the confines of a feature-length running-time (its ideal format is probably as an extended graphic novel). The final act, featuring an apparent Columbine-style atrocity at Pol's school, sees the picture spiral into silliness just as it should be clicking into top gear.

Freeman, in horn-rim spectacles and turtle-neck sweater, is disappointingly underused as a well-meaning 'trendy' teacher. And while Deerhoof is an engagingly odd and even delightful creation - his movements executed mainly through old-school puppetry and animatronics rather than CGI - few of the two-legged characters register as much more than attractive ciphers.

Though never less than striking on the eye and ear - Grau's nightscapes are stunning; the music cuts are judiciously chosen and smoothly integrated with Natalie Ann Holt's score; Jordi Ribas' sound design is a thing of thrillingly doomy susurrations - Animals is always a somewhat rickety contrivance plot-wise and completely falls apart in the latter stages, thanks to a fatal combination of the arbitrary and the pretentious. This is a shame, as Forés is clearly a talent, albeit one who evidently needs stronger guidance and assistance in future endeavors.

Venue: San Sebastian - Donostia Film Festival (New Directors)
Production company: Escándalo Films
Cast: Oriol Pla, Augustus Prew, Roser Tapias, Javier Beltrán, Dimitri Leonidas, Martin Freeman
Director: Marçal Forés
Screenwriters: Marçal Forés, Enric Pardo, Aintza Serra
Producers: Sergi Casamitjana, Lita Roig, Aintza Serra
Director of photography: Eduard Grau
Production designer: Gemma Fauria

Costume designer: Angélica Muñoz
Music: Natalie Ann Holt
Editor: Elena Ruiz, Jordi López, Bernat Vilaplana
Sales agent: Film Factory, Barcelona

No MPAA rating, 96 minutes