'Birdboy: The Forgotten Children': Film Review

A deeply dark and memorably twisted flight of fancy.

Anthropomorphic creatures populate a surreal, horror-tinged landscape in the film that was named best animated feature at the Goya Awards.

The animals and mechanical objects that talk and scheme in Birdboy could not be more human — in their yearning and suspicions and, most of all, their pain. They're not cuddly-cute critters, and their desperate post-apocalyptic adventures are not kiddie fare.

Directors Alberto Vázquez and Pedro Rivero, expanding a short film based on Vázquez's graphic novel Psiconautas, los niños olvidados, weave irreverent humor and bursts of poetic rapture into their fever dream of adolescent hope, set in a world drained of joy. An endlessly inventive excursion into despair, death and rebirth, and bitter satire, the hand-drawn animated feature from Spain packs a lot into its brief running time. And though its dark riches can at moments feel like overload, and its narrative thrust occasionally grows diffuse, the story casts an undeniable spell.

The setting is a once-idyllic island whose recent history is defined by a nuclear accident. One part of the territory has been reduced to a dangerous wasteland, a mountainous scrap heap where scavenger rats vie for territory and valuable copper. Elsewhere, neat little houses suggest pockets of wholesome normalcy — until you venture beyond the front doors.

In one such house, teenage mouse Dinky (voiced by Andrea Alzuri) is understandably morose, her youthful alienation playing out against a domestic horror show. She's constantly criticized by her hideous stepfather, who believes the sun rises and sets on her half-brother, a randy lapdog in a luchador mask. To top off the grotesquerie, Dinky's mother brandishes a Baby Jesus doll that cries blood, copiously.

The story follows two main plot strands: Dinky's attempts to escape the island and the solitary wanderings of the title character (Pedro Rivero), her ex-boyfriend. Like many survivors of the local cataclysm, Birdboy relies on drugs to quiet his inner demons. With his oversize ping-pong-ball head and cavernous eyes, he's an especially forlorn figure, cast adrift from the lighthouse that was his childhood home. His raggedy schoolboy jacket doubles as wings that lift him above the desolate landscape, if not out of the sights of the various characters targeting him. Their reasons aren't always clear — and in the case of a murderously trigger-happy canine cop, none, apparently, are necessary — but Birdboy's status as a pariah is brought to wrenching life.

The movie's simple line drawings and striking watercolor backdrops make for a powerful, emotionally expressive combo. With visual schemes that range from grayed pastels to stark black-and-white to an unexpectedly vibrant spring palette, the filmmakers draw the viewer ever deeper into the central characters' experiences. Besides Dinky and Birdboy, they include Dinky's two closest friends, both tormented: a fearful, bullied fox and a rabbit who hears voices.

Echoing the teenage trio's determination to take control of their lives is the struggle of a profoundly unhappy fisherman pig (Jon Goiri), who is caring for his addicted mother. His advice-spouting piggy bank is one of the film's memorably sentient "inanimate" objects, characters with a surprisingly poignant pull. Another is Dinky's robotic alarm clock, Mr. Reloggio (Josu Varela), whose mechanical heart aches at the sight of his abused and discarded "brothers" — rusting cans in the landfill.

From the tiniest creepy-crawly to the giant avian monster that rages like a prehistoric fugitive from Hades, the world of Birdboy is one of suffering. And that suffering, when it hasn't collapsed into paralyzing depression, is fueled by an instinct for change and renewal — by life. The visions of terror that Vázquez, Rivero and their gifted collaborators conjure are matched by visions of beauty, earthly and mystical. Amid the industrial waste, there are golden acorns. Buoyant bits of light brighten the darkness, and a flower blooms from spilled blood.

Production companies: Zircozine Animation, Basque Films, Abrakam Estudio, La Competencia
Distributor: GKIDS
Cast: Pedro Rivero, Andrea Alzuri, Eba Ojanguren, Josu Cubero, Josu Varela, Félix Arkarazo, Jorge Carrero, Nuria Marín, Jon Goiri, Maribel Legarreta, Iker Díaz, Juan Carlos Loriz, Kepa Cueto, Jon Goiri, Mónica Erdocia, Gilen Alcalde
Directors: Alberto Vázquez, Pedro Rivero
Screenwriters: Alberto Vázquez, Pedro Rivero; based on the novel
Psiconautas, los niños olvidados by Alberto Vázquez
Producers: Farruco Castromán, Carlo Juárez, Luis Tosar
Executive producers: Farruco Castromán, Carlos Juárez
Editor: Iván Miñambres
Composer: Aranzazu Calleja
Animation director: Khris Cembe
Art director: Alberto Vázquez

76 minutes