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by Jay Seaver

"Kind of a sweet, horrifying trip."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I'm not sure what "psychonauts" ("psiconautas" in the original Spanish) means as far as this title; if the original graphic novels involved an "Inception"-style trip inside someone's mind, it doesn't appear in the film, although I guess the "happy pills" some characters take might qualify as psychonautics. What does show up is a story of fed-up teenagers in a slightly post-apocalyptic future, and that's without mentioning they are talking animals.

Dinky is probably the most sick of everything; a clever mouse who wants to know more of the world than her island home, she's ready to run away, but not without her beloved Birdboy. She has accomplices in Sandra, a rabbit who hears voices, and the friendly Little Fox, but Birdboy is proving elusive, as is a boat that they can use to to the city. The only place they can buy one of those is amid the island's vast piles of trash, where rats quarrel over scraps.

There's a tremendous uncertainty to the world of Psychonauts; though the film opens with the rats chanting a mantra that would not be out of place in a Mad Max-style film, and a flashback shows what appears to be nuclear war, but when Dinky is introduced, she and her friends seem to exist in a world with a comfortable middle class, compete with school uniforms and alarm clocks. It is a reminder, perhaps, that what is a devastating apocalypse for one class or group can go almost unnoticed by another. What would normally be inanimate objects talk and plastic is rare, creating a situation that often seems unreal even by the standards of a talking-animal picture.

The characters, in their way, are just as unstable, but filmmakers Pedro Rivero and Alberto Vázquez (along with a quality voice cast) manage to create a mostly-sympathetic group. The kids, aside from the almost too-sweet Little Fox, have serious darkness to them, although in comparison to some of the people they meet, the voices they here or belittling they take from their families are just opportunities to show that they are pretty good kids underneath. There are still plenty of their classmates absorbing the worst traits from the adults around them. There's a lot of black humor in this film - the story of an inflatable pool duck is a hilarious spoof of what all those talking objects in old cartoons must have locked in their heads while still also being horrifying after just a little thought.

Visually, the film mostly stocks with the familiar designs from Vázquez's graphic novel - Birdboy with the round head, tie, and wings that form a cape being the most recognizable - but feels free to broaden it a bit. There are also some impressively lush backdrops and coloring of what was originally monochrome material, and every once in a while Rivero and Vázquez will shake things up in a way that delivers a genuine jolt or moment of awe.

Like a lot of animation and graphic novels that could be described as cartooning, "Psychonauts" can be a tough one to pin down - it's about teenagers drawn with a cute enough style that it might look visually appealing to kids, but it's not for them at all. I can't say how much it will appeal to fans of the original graphic novel (that work doesn't seem to be available in English), but I like it. It's weird and uneven, but it has a good core that it might not have managed

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originally posted: 08/04/16 23:30:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Monster Fest For more in the 2016 Monster Fest series, click here.

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Directed by
  Pedro Rivero
  Alberto Vzquez

Written by
  Pedro Rivero
  Alberto Vzquez


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