Director – Anca Damian – 2021 – Romania, France, Belgium – 84m
A reimagining of the Robinson Crusoe story with Robinson as a doctor on an island where Friday is the only survivor of a refugee ship – from the Annecy 2022 Animation Festival in the Official Competition section
The story of Robinson Crusoe, the man shipwrecked on a desert island befriended by a native he calls Friday, is here turned on its head by director Damian (Marona’s Fantastic Tale, 2019) bringing to life a clever script using an inventive mixture of 2D and CG animation techniques. Robinson (voiced by musician Alexander Bălănescu, who composed the music and songs with Ada Milea) is a Westerner, a well-off doctor who spends most of his time lounging around on an island with an i-Pad. He might be a shipwreck survivor, at least metaphorically. He sings about dreaming of shopping when hungry and after a while we wonder if he’s simply disillusioned with the Western materialist way of life.
He finds himself in the company of Friday (Lucian Ionescu), sole survivor of a refugee boat who treats the doctor as his saviour. Robinson admonishes Friday to drink only bottled water, because the alternative is unsafe. Friday tries to support himself by growing and selling tomatoes, but the clearly well-heeled buyer who rolls up in an armoured car to collect Friday’s produce only offers a derisory packet of cigarettes as payment, producing a gun on a later occasion when Friday attempts to ask for a more reasonable amount.
Also in the vicinity is a mermaid (Cristina Juncu). Robinson has designs on her and wants her company, but she seems to be more interested in Friday. She has a damaging past involving abduction by a pirate who forced her to be his wife for many years, a situation with which she’s still struggling to come to terms. He pirate-captor later turns up in a relationship with Robinson’s newly arrived mother Mary (voiced by co-composer Ada Milea) who has spent years tracking down her lost son.
While Friday is obviously black-skinned, the tone of his skin is much lighter than Robinson’s, which is darker. Yet Friday treats him deferentially, objectifying Robinson as his saviour. I this is a comment on the White Saviour complex, it’s refusing to play by any established rules.
The whole thing is a riff on the idea of an island as a sunny paradise in that all the characters ere attempting to find their own redemption in the form of a paradise. Some of them get closer to this than others.
It’s a deeply surreal experience. An early sequence typifies the visual style and sets the tone when Robinson picks up a jug of water from a table, a jug-shaped part of the background of the sea stretching into the distance that leaves a void behind as his hand lifts it upward. The mermaid’s tail comprises a series of cones suggesting mass-produced forms. There are lots of visual conceits like this scattered throughout, which prove a constant source of surprise and delight.
It never for a minute feels like a musical, a movie filled with memorable songs. The songs and music ARE memorable, but not in the usual way of these things. The lyrics feel more like poetry set to flowing music than songs; indeed, ‘flow’ seems the right word to describe the whole experience as images and scenes chase and follow one another in an almost poetic fashion and characters and situations weave in and out of the narrative, or at least what little narrative there is.
If the above description conjures numerous meandering and unsatisfactory movies seen over the years, most of them live action rather than animation, here Damian and Bălănescu’s parcelling up of their content in their chosen visual and aural forms conjures instead something quite compelling even as it wanders all over the place towards its intended destination. Very different from Marona’s Fantastic Tale, which detailed the life of a dog within a far more conventional narrative structure, Damian’s new offering feels just as inventive and colourful in equally fresh, vibrant and innovative ways.
The behaviour of some of these characters is duplicitous and dubious and yet, somehow, we really feel for them. The human condition, perhaps, with the film an accurate barometer of some of our current dilemmas that seems to speak directly to our messed up situation, offering hope, not from the well off section of global community, which is here shown to be in crisis and unable to know what to do with itself never mind tackling the larger problems we face, but rather from the very bottom where Friday the refugee figure, transformed from colonial native in the original tale, becomes the person with vision who can help to build a better world.
Outside of the film itself, the project has simultaneously been developed into a board game for 2-4 players who travel around the island in search of paradise. That speaks volumes for the creativity that has gone into the concept and can be constantly seen on the screen in the movie version.
The Island plays in the Annecy Animation Festival 2022 which is taking place in a 100% on-site edition this year right now in the Official Competition section.
Annecy 2022 trailer:
Annecy Animation Festival
Anima, the Brussels International Animation Film Festival
The International Film Festival of Rotterdam (IFFR)