At this year’s BFI London Film Festival, Spanish animated feature „Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children” was screened in the Cult strand, dedicated to the ‘mind-altering and unclassifiable’, which seems appropriate: it’s such a strange film that it’s almost impossible to describe. I mean, I’m going to try, but it’s entirely likely you won’t get the right idea, although it may help to watch some previous short films by Alberto Vazquez, creator of the Psychonauts characters ( originally in graphic novel form.)
Set in a world populated by cute small animals such as mice, bunnies and puppies, „Psychonauts” is nevertheless almost relentlessly melancholic and violent. It’s not the anarchic, gleeful violence of „Happy Tree Friends”, but the kind that goes together with bitterness and despair (significantly, two characters with guns discuss, at one point, the importance of destroying the very soul of the prey they’re hunting.) The story is a mix of „Mad Max” and „Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” with a dash of hopeless romance, socio-political critique and „Adventure Time”-style absurd humour. There are several sequences so tense, grotesque or terrifying that I found myself clutching the armrests of my seat a bit too hard. Not quite a film you can easily put in a box, then!
The pretext for the plot is an industrial accident and the destruction it left behind on an isolated island populated by the aforementioned cute critters. The survivors are all dreaming of escaping to a better place; some are maintaining an appearance of polite society, some are tools in the post-disaster authoritarian machine, others live as scavengers in the island’s rapidly growing garbage dumps. Birdboy, the film’s solitary, tortured, drug-addicted hero, who looks a bit like he belongs in an early Tim Burton poem, is the common thread running through the storylines of these disparate characters, a target for their hatred, disgust, fear, hope, love.
Many of the themes are quite familiar (and relevant to the current state of our real, human-populated world), but the particular recipe bringing these ingredients together feels quite unique. The film’s visuals make excellent use of simple shapes and contrasts, particularly in its scariest scenes; the backgrounds and character designs are beautiful, like children’s books illustrations.
For all its occasional quirky jokes, though, the universe of the Psychonauts is a fairly bleak, oppressive place to visit, although there are some glimmers of hope in the darkness. I never thought I’d say this about a film with talking mice and bunnies, but, somehow, it made me quite sad in a way that’s hard to explain. Do see it if you can, as it’s a strangely compelling movie, but you’ll be glad to escape Birdboy’s island when it’s all over.