The opening moments of “Birdboy: The Forgotten Children” unfold like an urgent warning to any parents who might think that this is just another kid-friendly animated film about cute animals who learn valuable lessons. “The future is past,” a voice insists from the darkness, speaking in Spanish and accompanied by exclamatory subtitles (an English-language version is also available). “The garbage is the present. Blood is the law!” From there, we’re hurled through the history of a once-vibrant storybook world, a colorful idyll where bunnies and mice and all sorts of creatures lived in harmony until a nuclear disaster scorched the island and turned its survivors against each other.
Adorable silhouettes bleed into red and black monsters, and the nice sounds of nature are replaced by a queasy synth score that sounds like it was borrowed from “The Neon Demon.” Within minutes, we’re introduced to a young mouse named Dinky (whose foster parents shame her with a Baby Jesus figurine that cries blood), a pre-teen rabbit who’s haunted by demonic voices, and a fascistic pair of police dogs who shoot anyone who steps out of line. By the time we’re formally introduced to the title character — a moon-headed chick who wears a tattered business suit and silently mourns his murdered father — it barely even registers that he’s a heroin addict.
A hand-drawn head-trip directed by Alberto Vázquez and Pedro Rivero — and adapted from Vázquez’s graphic novel, “Psychonauts” — “Birdboy” thrives on the disconnect between the innocence of its fluffy heroes and the despair of the life they’ve inhabited. And yet, the film is never the least bit smug about the subversiveness of its conceit; there’s absolutely no attempt at shock value. On the contrary, this dark and mesmerizing import feels like a natural segue in a conversation started by the likes of “Maus” and “Watership Down,” Vázquez and Rivero using anthropomorphic critters to grapple with subjects that might be painful to confront directly. It weaponizes their innocence without letting it go.
“Birdboy” doesn’t have a plot so much as it does a drifting premise, but the main thread that wends its way through the film’s scattered 76-minute running time involves Dinky and her friends trying to escape their island home. Their haphazard journey is interrupted by a number of strange asides, each a bit more nightmarish than the last; one sequence, in which a drug-dealing swine named Pig Boy confronts the giant spider who lives underneath his dying addict mother, borders on a “Twin Peaks” level of terror. Every character we meet is in crisis, even the inflatable rubber duck that Dinky hopes will carry away from this hell (levity comes in the form of a Hertzfeldt-esque alarm clock who was programmed to feel pain). In a movie that manages to feel both overloaded and spread too thin, it helps that there’s always something new to fear and/or pity.
On that note, it also helps that “Birdboy” employs a slightly different style for each of its many different parts. The young characters seem plucked from a fairy tale, while the older ones — particularly the haggard rats who live on the dark side of the island and fight each other over scraps of trash — look like old Disney cartoons who aged out of the spotlight and fell on (very) hard times. “Not everything with a body is alive,” someone warns. The cumulative effect is that of a broken world in which kids are conditioned for a violent type of self-sufficiency and trained to think of everyone as their enemies.
Each societal malady becomes an excuse to restrict freedoms and encourage forgetting; nobody can remember why Birdboy is in exile, and it seems like Dinky and her friends are the last generation that might even vaguely remember a better yesterday. Whether explicitly grappling with the Spanish heroin epidemic that bled through Vázquez’s childhood, or more broadly likening a child’s loss of innocence to a toxic cloud settling in over Eden, “Birdboy” creates a tortured dreamscape that’s riddled with golden pearls of hope.
This is a beautiful film, and an ugly one, and the tension between those two sides doesn’t abate until the very last scene. But even (or especially) at its most frightening, “Birdboy” flaps its wings and tries to fly true, urging viewers of all ages to create a new world instead of nesting in the rotten one they inherited. As abstract as this story can be, its miasma of morbid imagery sells that core idea with all the clarity of a fable. These characters may have been born into a sea of garbage, but they don’t have to die there.
“Birdboy: The Forgotten Children” opens in theaters on December 15th.