It’s still difficult to think of going to an animated film as a trip to bummersville, even when “Bambi” makes us cry, Ralph Bakshi skeevs us out, or Don Hertzfeldt turns stick figures into avatars of bittersweet existential tragedy. (They’re so funny, though!) But the hand-drawn Spanish-language feature “Birdboy: The Forgotten Children” from directors Alberto Vázquez and Pedro Rivero has a special recipe for enduring post-apocalyptic doom and gloom that no amount of colorfully poetic weirdness can quite dispel.
That’s more a warning about its content than its quality, for those of you lulled by a fanciful-sounding title promising talking animals. As an artistic vision, the movie is compelling. But the original heading instead of “Birdboy” is “Psychonauts” — or in Spanish, “Psiconautas,” the name of Vazquez’s graphic novel source material — which is more in keeping with the idea that the story’s wasteland-wandering critters are more cracked than cute. To meet Birdboy, after all — a fatherless, drug-dealing teen sporting black wings and a black suit and a skeletal head marked by pupil-less abysses for eyes — is to scale down one’s wishes for a cartoon character from general happiness and life fulfillment to “Please don’t get shot or die from substance abuse.”
The world of “Birdboy” is a remote island that once thrived, but has turned gray, barren and violent following a catastrophic industrial blast that wiped out much of the population. (These events are encapsulated using images from the directors’ 2012 short “Birdboy,” which now plays as a set-up for their feature.) While copper-thieving, glue-sniffing gangs of rats turn self-regenerating garbage heaps into personal fiefdoms, the other inhabitants act out a hollow normalcy — aided by readily available “happy pills” — from which the younger generation can’t wait to escape.
Birdboy has become the island’s maligned outsider, hunted by cops (represented as trigger-happy canines) and whispered about by everyone else. His female mouse friend Dinky, meanwhile, bristles under life with a religious fanatic mom, creepy stepdad and snarling dog brother. Along with school pals Zorrito, a bullied fox, and Sandra, a rabbit who hears (and thankfully ignores) voices telling her to do terrible things, they initiate a plan to find a way off the island for good, hopefully accompanied by Birdboy, who is busy dealing with his own demons.
“Birdboy” is a hellscape, for sure, but its crannies of dark, bloody humor and satiric anthropomorphism — which extends to a talking piggy bank and comically traumatized inflatable duck raft — mitigate the sense that you’re watching an unforgiving wallow. There’s also fleet invention in the visual touches: a pig boy fisherman whose mother’s drug addiction is represented by a gravelly voiced spider that gets larger and larger, and Birdboy’s terrifying inner self, seen as a screech-cawing incarnation that looks like the shadow of Max Schreck’s Nosferatu with a steroidal raven’s head.
But it’s not an entirely hopeless scenario either. Occasional glimpses of shiny, golden acorns, and the appearance of a hidden, beautiful wood — perhaps hallucinatory, but who knows? — point to the possibility that something wonderful can grow once more from this environmentally devastated land.
And yet let’s be clear — this bizarro rendering of adorable critters set against macabre, impressionistic backgrounds is decidedly not for little ones. As adult animation goes, “Birdboy” is its own weird, woolly and surprisingly sensitive foray into the grimmer corners of life. But at its best, when Vázquez and Rivero hit the right mix of melancholy and acidic in their battered fever dream, it plays like a troubled schoolkid’s secret drawings brought to colorful, if unapologetically horrific, life.
‘Birdboy: The Forgotten Children’
In Spanish with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica