Film Review: Birdboy: The Forgotten Children

Three kids embark on a horrific quest for light and freedom in this inventive, exceedingly gloomy, post-apocalyptic animated fairytale.
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There are moments of terror, and of wonder, in Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, a bleak yet beautifully drawn animated film from Spanish co-writer-directors Alberto Vázquezand Pedro Rivero. Based on the graphic novel Psiconautas by Vázquez, the film is wholly committed to its stark, ghostly vision of anthropomorphic animals striving for hope in a brutal post-apocalyptic world.

On an island nation of farm and woodland creatures, living in a society that advanced from agrarian to industrial to toxic, an atomic explosion reduces much of the population to dust. Hordes of survivors cling to the margins of the New Industrial Zone, living by the creed “The future is past. Garbage is the present. Blood is our law.” The story doesn’t get much lighter from there, despite a smattering of strikingly colorful sequences, and painterly, muted backgrounds throughout what turns out to be a twisted fantasy.

While gangs of rats salvage copper from within canyons of waste in the sprawling rubbish-scape, three young friends band together to seek a better life in the big city, where everything happens. But first, Sandra(Eba Ojanguren), a rabbit who hears voices, none of them cheery; Zorrito (Josu Cubero), a brave little fox; and Dinky (Andrea Alzuri), a smart, resourceful mouse who’s in love with the ever-elusive Birdboy (Félix Arcarazo), all have to get off the island. Their quest is to find the means to do so, on an odyssey through a world of thorns and shadows.

The film hews to a vision darker than del Toro or Burton, and the animation, though evocative of Studio Ghibli here and there, expresses little of the warmth of a Miyazaki picture. The humor, what seeps through, is dry and rough, and not exactly ha-ha funny. A Little Baby Jesus squeeze toy that bleeds from his eyes when you squeeze him is more disturbing than comical. Although, it’s a pretty good dig at pet owners that Dinky’s stepbrother, Jonathan, is actually a dog dressed to look like a boy, and who’s treated by her parents like a boy, but who acts very much like a dog.

For the most part, the story eschews jokes for scenes of our intrepid trio confronting threats along their path, from their own inner fears to a pack of knife-wielding, glue-sniffing rat bandits. Drugs are a persistent villain in this bizarre reality, where Dinky takes actual Happy Pills behind her parents’ backs. She has also a talking alarm clock with feelings, and encounters a piggy bank that has opinions on how much money you’ve saved.

Driven by a tingly, trance-inflected synth score, the movie is whimsical, though it never really seems childish—except in the deployment of another talking toy, an obnoxious but helpful inflatable floating duck. Rather, Vázquez and Rivero have produced a vision perhaps too terrifying for most kids. A giant spider chase, involving poisonous injections, is as frightening as anything Ray Harryhausen or Peter Jackson ever conceived.

The co-directors might elicit chills, but did not elicit uniformly effective performances from the cast, as a few supporting characters’ line readings sound exactly like they’re being read. Alzuri and Ojanguren, on the other hand, give layered performances as Dinky and Sandra, with Cubero especially fine voicing Zorrito. Paco Sacarzazu contributes a fun, brief turn voicing a black marketer named Uncle Klaus.

Uncle Klaus is one of the few survivors left on the island who doesn’t attack the kids or wield a belligerently negative attitude towards them. The world of Birdboy is unremittingly downbeat, much like Birdboy himself, an outcast hybrid à la Edward Scissorhands. In his sad story, there’s more than a hint of Burton’s style at its most macabre. So, if that kid you know who reads or read Poe, and loves anime and Addams, is ready to watch Birdboy dream of being pecked to death by his own birdlike demons, then here’s the future cult classic for you and for them.

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