Director – Gints Zilbalodis – 2019 – Latvia – Cert. U – 75m
Exclusively in these cinemas from Friday, August 28th
A boy hangs from a tree by a parachute in a wilderness. He wakes. A strange, towering black / grey figure approaches, shining as if metallic or viscous like a solidified, smooth, crude oil or tar. It picks him up. He is in a dark tunnel, light at one end. He goes the other way, is out of the giant’s clutches, runs. It slowly turns and lumbers after him. There are occasional, giant, semicircular hoops in his path. He goes through them, eventually entering a grotto which fully circular hoop the giant can’t follow. Welcome to the strange, dreamlike world of Away.
Beyond an abandoned motorbike, in the middle of the grotto, is a lake bordered with orange trees and the ocean. The boy feeds, bathes and makes the acquaintance of a shy, little yellow bird. Finding a key and a map in a rucksack, the boy learns that the semicircular hoops mark a route to a harbour. His bike will furnish him the means to get there. A flock of white birds is flying in the same direction, however the yellow bird can’t join them because it can’t fly. So the boy puts the bird in a pocket in the rucksack from where it can see the journey.
What follows takes the form of a quest, with a series of set-pieces en route: a traversable lake with a surface as reflective as mirror, a collapsed stone bridge whose frame has been rebuilt as wood, a fountain which spouts once a day allowing catlike creatures to descend a spiral path and drink, a hostile, snow-covered mountain prone to avalanches. A dream of man-sized beings who look like the giant baling out of an aircraft losing height, a crashed aircraft the boy finds where he sees, as if in a vision, the same beings turning to look at him from those seats left intact in the wrecked fuselage. And all the while, the terrible giant relentlessly pursuing the boy, death personified, trauma on legs.
Zilbalodis uses 3D computer animation to tell his story, refusing to draw lines round his characters so that you’re constantly watching solid blocks of colour. Moreover, the boy’s mouth and nose are drawn with a pink orange only slightly darker than his facial flesh tones, so much of the time you forget those features are there. There is a primitive quality to the environments with contours of hills and other geographical features using a series of separate graded bands rather than the traditionally employed blended shading, but the director cleverly exploits this potentially cheap-looking feature to render the world in which the action takes place all the more distinctive.
The boy’s journey is paralleled by that of the yellow bird and also a briefly-seen tortoise who he rights when he finds it helpless on its back after it slips down a slope. There is no dialogue (unless you count the yellow bird’s chirping): the narrative is carried instead with extraordinary visuals and a relentless momentum of the boy towards the safety of civilization as represented by the distant harbour, shadowed by his dark pursuer. There’s an effective music score too reminiscent of Joe Hisaishi and Jóhann Jóhannsson, among others.
Like that other, very different animated fable about a person on an island The Red Turtle (Michaël Dudok De Wit, 2016), it plays out as a metaphor for larger truths. An extraordinary achievement, not least because the director did everything himself which means there are virtually no credits at the end. It’s hard to believe it’s the work of one person when the results are as impressive as this. Go and see it in the cinema. You’re in for a treat.
Away is out exclusively in these cinemas in the UK on Friday, August 28th.
Annecy International Animation Festival