While “The Breadwinner” has deservedly grabbed all of the accolades for GKids (including a Golden Globe nomination), Oscar voters should not overlook another GKid animated feature contender: “Birdboy: The Forgotten Children.” The Spanish dystopian fable, directed by Alberto Vázquez and Pedro Rivero, is the darkest and most daring hand-drawn animated movie of the year. It alternates between the horrific and the comical, and its imagery assaults the viewer like a nightmarish Goya painting.
Indeed, the twisted tale about troubled animated critters living on a post-apocalyptic island first sprung from Vázquez’s graphic novel. It was initially adapted into a short by the two filmmakers as a prequel to the feature. Following an ecological crisis that fosters crime, repression, and drug trafficking, Dinky, a young teen mouse, hatches a plan to escape with her friends, including Birdboy, a shy, tormented bird who lives in a lighthouse and consumes drugs to subdue the demon living inside him.
Making the Transition to Animation
Vázquez brought his considerable talent for illustration to the animation, while Rivero offered his production experience as writer-producer-director. They collaborated on the feature for eight years. “The way I think is in drawing, and I have dedicated much of my work to the graphic look, the storyboard design, and background design,” said Vázquez. “Even though I focused on drawing the storyboard and Pedro worked on the animatics of the storyboard, we had to talk the whole time.”
The short went well, and they learned a lot. Rivero, meanwhile, amplified the graphic novel’s dystopian messages with his his own personal take about coming of age. The nuclear accident, for instance, could be viewed as “the hormonal bomb that destroys our childhood and brings us to adolescence,” he said. “In addition, there are themes of the environment and the importance of leaving behind a world that we have built and taken care of.”
With a small team of 15 in Spain, they created a collaborative process in which animators were free to explore while focusing on specific characters — one animator only handled the nightmares. Aesthetically, the color palette is expressionistic, emphasizing red and black (as in Birdboy’s nightmares). But the densely-packed, 24-hour journey reveals a visual arc tied to time of day as well as character relationships.
Playing with Tone
The feature has a sprawling narrative. Dinky can no longer endure an oppressive home life with her religious mother, disapproving adoptive father, and barking dog of a brother (who wears a Santo-style mask). Dinky teams up with her best friends: Zorrit (a bullied fox) and Sandra (a rabbit with demons urging her to embrace the dark side). And along the way, there are subplots involving a hapless talking alarm clock; a black marketeer who thinks of himself as Santa Claus; a Pig Boy and his bedridden, addicted mother; and a pair of police dogs who torment Birdboy.
At its most subversive, “Birdboy” offers up a bleeding baby Jesus doll and ghoulish attacks of the mind and body. “The film gives us the ability to put characters and animals that everybody can recognize into the real world,” Rivero said. “They come from fables and belong to the world and one of the strong points is that it’s a dystopian [story]. Even when there’s a lot happening around Dinky and Birdboy, we never lose perception of where they are. The whole story of the island converges into one.”
The challenge was finding an equilibrium since the movie veers from one extreme to another. “We are always trying to balance very dramatic, violent scenes and put humor in,” Vázquez said. “We didn’t want to overwhelm the audience.
“We also wanted some moments of light,” he added. “For example, the character of Birdboy is very different from the other characters. He’s very poetic, without expression. And there are big silences. It helps to mix all the tones together.”
At one point, there was even a discussion of Pleasure Island from “Pinocchio” in reference to a scene with a giant spider. “There are very dark tales that have been sugar-coated in animation,” Rivero said. “We wanted to reach that level of intensity where it takes you back to the scene where the boys turn into donkeys.”