The further that modern Western animation has strayed from traditional hand-drawn animation, the more it has honed in on one particular aesthetic.
The big studios favouring 3D animation want to reflect an identical cartoonish reality. Animation has, in some regards, become monolithic. There are exceptions to this massive generalisation. The Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, and the makers of Ernest et Celestine, seem to buck this trend. Latvian filmmaker Gints Zilbalodis joins this prestigious group of filmmakers who are breaking away from the mould. His new feature-length film, Away, is essentially a one-man show which is sure to have a seismic effect in the animated film world.
A boy wakes up to find himself suspended in the air. His parachute has trapped him the boughs of a tree. He is in the middle of a desert, and the camera captures an image surely inspired by Dali. The material of the parachute slumps over the branches like the artist’s melting clocks. The boy is alone, and he seems lost. It all seems futile until he sees a looming mass of a creature before him. This silent spectre is as creepy as Studio Ghibli’s No-Face and as impressive as The Iron Giant. The creature lets the boy free, only to attempt to devour him. Panting, the boy escapes into a tranquil wilderness, where he finds a map and a motorbike and begins to plan his quest home.
While Zilbalodis’ lush green forests and jagged blue-toned hills set an impressive backdrop over the story, he also delivers a quiet epic. No dialogue is uttered in the film, yet this is a powerful story about one young man’s loss of community and his desire to get back to where he belongs. As the film flitters from dreamlike states to a more grounded reality, it becomes clear that the monster could be the harbinger of death, or something else far more mysterious. However, Zilbalodis’ film is not afraid of levity in the face of death’s quiet stalker. When our hero reaches the Dream Well, a hoard of black cats wait patiently for the water to bubble up like a geyser. They are like distant cousins of Studio Ghibli’s much-loved Kodama from Princess Mononoke. Nature bristles alive in Away; even though our protagonist yearns for his home in human-occupied Cloud Harbour, the animals take on such personality and character that they become his friends.
Zilbalodis’ animation style is grounded yet profoundly unique. The shading is minimal, yet all the colours chosen have a beautiful softness to them. Although the characters may seem flat, they are brought to life by whispers of wind curling their hair or the small twitches of breath. The first oasis our protagonist encounters is a beautiful cliffside forest. The trees overhang above him, and they look like water lilies on stilts. These strange chartreuse and lime trees indicate that Zilbalodis’ carefully crafted world is only bound to become more wonderous as the film goes on. From the soaring clouds of doves to the family of tortoises, Zilbalodis’ naïve illustrative style shines throughout, marking him as an animator to watch.
Although driven by primarily the moving image, the sound design is extraordinary. Your ears quickly attune to the crunch of feet walking through freshly fallen snow or the whistle of the wind. Zilbalodis hasn’t just created a score – he has created a soundscape that breathes. It’s easy to nestle into this world and feel cocooned in its comfort. However, Zilbalodis knows precisely when to use music to make the hairs stand up on the back of our necks. When the boy lands and realises that the monster isn’t as friendly as he first seemed, we are filled with an overwhelming sense of terror. Zilbalodis’ score feels infused by Hans Zimmer’s score in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, using the same continuously rising Shepard tone to create an increasing sense of peril. While this is primarily an animation, Zilbalodis indicates that he is a man of many talents and his sound design should not go unnoticed.
There’s a glorious innocence in Away, which marks it out as a perfect comfort watch. As lovely as it is to watch the protagonist’s quest through beautiful landscapes, this is also a story you can really muse over. There are strong echoes here of Studio Ghibli and that particular studio’s love of nature. Still, this isn’t a work that is deeply referential to other animated films. Zilbalodis’ work can stand on its own two feet. Away is a breath of fresh air for an audience who may have thought that animated films were becoming stale.
Words by Lucy Clarke
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