Everything is cuter with talking animals, right? This film will test that theory with drug addiction, schizophrenia, police brutality, and industrial disasters. It is no wonder three alienated animal youths are determined to escape their dysfunctional and dystopian island home, but leaving is not such a simple proposition for the late Birdman’s son. He is seemingly tied to the island by bonds of psychological and emotional pain in Pedro Rivero & Alberto Vázquez’s Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (trailer here), an officially qualified Oscar contender, which opens this Friday in New York.
Not so long ago, a nuclear meltdown wiped out the island’s industrial sector, leaving a vast dumping ground in its wake. Residents of the island’s supposedly civilized quarter avoid it as best they can, but a tribe of scavengers known as “the Forgotten Children” constantly picks over the trash heaps in search of salvageable copper. Dinky, a recently orphaned mouse, pines for Birdboy, her sort of boyfriend, but it is unclear whether he can commit to her on any level. Tragically, he is still tormented by the death of his father, Birdman, who was murdered by the island’s shoot-first police dog, on the suspicion he was dealing drugs.
Dinky and her friends, Sandra the schizophrenic rabbit and Little Fox the little fox, plan to purchase a light boat in the [post-]industrial zone, so they can make a Cuban-style getaway, but the sensitive mouse hopes she can convince Birdboy to leave with them. However, he has his own ghosts and mental demons to exercise. Plus, the police dogs are hot on his trail.
GKIDS deserves all kinds of credit for giving ambitious animated films like this a chance. Make no mistake, Birdboy is absolutely not for kids—not one little bit, even though the characters look deceptively youngster-friendly. Based on Vázquez’s graphic novel, it is a dark and sophisticated film that is almost relentlessly pessimistic about human nature, or rather anthropomorphic animal nature. Yet, it is singularly macabre and richly inventive accomplishment in world-building. There is just so much that is bizarre and frightening about their island environment, it would be a shame to miss out on it.
Vázquez’s characters are also unusually complex and deeply damaged. This is one neurotic animated feature, but we really feel compassion for Dinky, Sandra, Little Fox, and Birdboy. They are way more human than anything you will see in The Boss Baby or the latest Despicable movie. (However, parents should again be cautioned, our cuddly cast of characters is headed for a bittersweet conclusion that is more bitter than sweet.)
As if Birdboy were not sufficiently challenging on its own, it will be paired with Vázquez’s Goya Award-winning short film Decorado during its New York engagement. Featuring dreams-within-dreams and worlds-within-proscenium stage sets, Decorado will confuse most Millennials. It also features sexual references and a vicious parody of Donald Duck. It is trippy and unsettling, but it is also dazzling, in a postmodern kind of way. It certainly is not out of place proceeding Birdboy, but it does not have anything like its emotional payoff.
Alas, Birdboy has no chance for best animated feature, because there is no way the Academy can handle it, but if you want to see what animation can be, it will duly impress (along with Decorado). These are haunting visions, whose very existence makes our world a stranger and more mysterious place. Highly recommended for animation connoisseurs, Birdboy: The Forgotten Children opens this Friday (12/15) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.