New Animated Releases: Away (2019) - Reviewed

A young boy races across an exotic landscape on a motorcycle with only a golden bird to keep him company. Pursuing him is a giant, ethereal demon shrouded in darkness. So goes the debut feature from Latvian animator Gints Zilbalodis, Away. Zibalodis spent four years completing his film. He animated, edited and scored the entire film himself and there’s not an ounce of wasted effort to be found. At a lean 75 minutes, Away, pulses with energy from the jump and oscillates wonderfully between tension and rumination. 

Immediately, one can’t help but make comparisons to Hayao Miyazaki. As our unnamed protagonist makes his way from place to place, he encounters a wide variety of distantly helpful animals and the being chasing him looks as if it could be pulled straight out of Princess Mononoke. While it’s easy to assume Zibalodis was inspired by Miyazaki, it’s unfair to compare the two because Zilbalodis’ style is wholly is own and it moves you to its own frequency. 

Using gorgeous, minimalist animation, Zibalodis focuses less on the details and more on moving the audience through the boy’s journey. His style is expressionistic and painterly, calling to mind artists like Van Gogh who can transport you into a world of color and feeling with just a brush stroke. Zibalodis accomplishes that with his digital paintbrush with sequences that leave you breathless. Coupled with the pacing, the film sweeps you into its scope. As it bounces between “how is he going to escape” moments of dread and stunning moments of silence, Zibalodis wants you to breathe with the film. In and out, in and out. Few films can accomplish a level of immersion like this. 

That isn’t to say Away is without its problems. It has a video-game like approach to the narrative at its least compelling. The boy finds a map early on and it shows him a series of archways he has to travel through to get to the other side of wherever he is, presumably leading him to safety. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of storytelling in and of itself but within the context of an otherwise abstract film, it strikes you as a little too easy. When it adheres too closely to that format, it gives the impression of watching somebody else play a game. In a film that has no dialogue and relies only on human character, you’re left feeling more of an observer than a participant.

Thankfully these instances are sporadic, because Zibalodis is more interested in dropping the boy into gorgeous landscapes and letting him get lost within them. The imagery is spellbinding and keys you in to what exactly happened to lead him to this place. When we find him, he’s hanging from a tree by a parachute and throughout the film, we see glimpses of a plane spiraling to its doom in the night. It’s never made crystal clear what really happened but one can assume the basic details. The why and how is never important, it’s the what. And the what, at least to me, is that the boy is stuck in a limbo, being pursued by death.

The beauty of Away is that the world is so bizarre and often serene that there could be any number of interpretations and none of them would be wrong. It’s never interested in spelling it out to you and you shouldn’t be interested in that either. It works because it’s an impressionistic journey of self and a celebration of life. The boy’s will, curiosity and determination propel him to through wondrous forests filled with tombstones and plains of shallow water inhabited by elephants. Zibalodis’ style is unparalleled; continuously surprising, at once simple yet full of life.

The best animated films try to be about more than their premise- this year’s Toy Story 4 for example tackles the meaning of life and existential dread using childhood play things. Away uses the plot device of a chase to let the viewer contend with life, death and survival, all through beautiful animation, silence and abstraction. It’s a profoundly moving piece that soars over mountain tops more than it ever descends down the valleys. If you can get on its frequency, it’s a journey well worth taking.

-Brandon Streussnig