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Somewhere between Hayao Miyazaki and Terrence Malick lies Away, a gorgeously made minimalist cartoon that’s long on beauty and breathtaking scenery, if somewhat short on traditional narrative.
Indeed, like Malick’s recent efforts to create emotion out of sheer aesthetic prowess, one-man-band Latvian director Gints Zilbalodis uses 3D animation to highlight the power of natural wonders and the sway they hold over a young man trapped on a mystical island straight out of Ponyo, Princess Mononoke or other classics of the Japanese master. Screening in Annecy’s Contrechamps competition in France, this promising debut could gain its talented creator some notice abroad.
Beyond the above-mentioned references, another work that comes to mind is Michael Dudok de Wit’s very Miyazaki-influenced 2016 feature The Red Turtle, which, like this movie, was a dialogue-less affair set on an island populated by strange creatures. The latter film, which premiered in Cannes, was the kind of contemplative work that puts you more in a mood than it grips you with its thrilling story. Likewise, Away plunges the viewer into something close to a meditative state, with Zilbalodis’ inspired self-composed score creating rushes of transfixing intensity.
The plot, as such, involves an unnamed character (probably in his late teens) who crash lands on an island and has to travel across it to find his way out. Beyond a little bird he befriends early on, and a pack of identical black cats guarding a natural geyser, the only other inhabitant seems to be a giant ephemeral monster that won’t stop pursuing our hero until it swallows him whole. Whether the monster is real, or just a manifestation of the young man’s inner demons, is up for debate, but it nonetheless helps fuel a storyline that could have used a bit more oomph to keep us interested.
Where Away does work, and extremely well in places, is in Zilbalodis’ ability to create instances of pure animated bliss — beginning with an impressive opening that finds the character hanging from a parachute in the middle of a mysterious barren land. Other highlights include a late scene where the boy, who uses a motorcycle as his principal means of transport, rides across a water-filled plain reflecting the sky above; a dream sequence where we powerfully soar through clouds and canyons; and a scene where the hero wanders into a jungle filled with ominous tombstones.
It took over four years for Zilbalodis, who single-handedly animated, scored, edited and produced, to complete the movie, and his painstaking effort can be seen in nearly every frame. There’s something rather old-fashioned and rudimentary about the animation itself, which has the 3D imagery of works from the mid-to-late ’90s, when computers were just becoming strong enough to handle feature-length cartoons. But the aesthetic only adds to the film’s strange and absorbing power, creating a hypnotizing atmosphere that, in its best moments, manages to spirit us away.
Venue: Annecy International Animation Film Festival (Contrechamp)
Production company: Bilibaba
Director/screenwriter/producer/editor/composer/animator: Gints Zilbalodis
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