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by Jay Seaver

"Would be impressive even with a bigger crew."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It's a rare feature film that is as singularly the work of one artist as "Away", and of that small sample, few are this good. With nobody else credited on the film, director Gints Zilbalodis strips an adventure story down to fundamentals, makes some choices that maybe a larger team might not have, and comes through with an animated film for all ages that comes across as unique but not gimmicky.

The plot is dead-simple - a boy has survived a plane crash, starting the movie dangling from a tree by his parachute. He's in the middle of the wilderness, and the nearest city, Cloud Harbor, is some distance away. He's soon befriended by a yellow bird who seems to be about as alone as he is, and together, they journey through dangerous and surreal landscapes in hope of getting to the place that can get him home.

Away is a very simple movie in a lot of ways - Gints Zilbalodis made it on his own, and he's smart to keep from overburdening himself in ways that filmmakers telling this sort of story often do. He doesn't bother with dialogue, for instance, and makes it feel natural by not feeling the need to give the boy someone to talk to. He has, in large part, structured the film like a video game, and rendered it either with a gaming engine or some similar software, and it becomes an intriguing artistic choice on top of being very practical: It works as this boy attacking his problems in a way he understands, and why he doesn't necessarily need to be vocal. Zilbalodis doesn't make it an overt theme by being judgmental - this isn't a "kid who only knows the world through screens can't handle the real thing" movie - but going for a gaming aesthetic lets him buck filmmaking conventions and create different ways of understanding a character who doesn't have much reason to explain himself.

It's a simple structure, but if you're good at what it's focused on, that leaves it fewer places to trip up. And Zilbalodis doesn't trip up - the action is as clear as the symbolism, the music is big and swelling, the designs feel like they could spring from the mind of its young hero, and so on. It's got such an individual personality that it never feels generic, just elemental, and the filmmaker chooses when to slow down a bit and let things breathe well, even if he's not wasting time in general. For all that the film resembles a game, Zilbalodis never goes for cut scenes, instead choosing to look around and let the audience suss out what the goal is here, and how the hero will react to the obstacles. Bits of action will grow impressively, with the predator that represents the boy's doubt and fear lurking but not quite close enough to cause a rush.

And it's gorgeous, each frame looking like a three-dimensional image made by laying construction paper or some other flat material down in layers, but the virtual camera work makes it feel like a real place being traversed. Some scenes are tremendously striking - biking across Mirror Lake, for instance, with birds reflected in the impossibly clear surface, enough to make one forget the seeming simplicity, or at least appreciate how it makes that shot possible. It's not necessarily the tremendously detailed animation of a commercial studio, but the movie is a pleasure to look at.

I'm curious how different generations will take to it as they discover it on various streaming services. It is, in a way, so unapologetically game-like that I suspect some older viewers will diminish or dismiss it, even if that's also a sign of how it's the hero's journey in almost perfect form, even as the younger ones feel a bit more pulled in. At any rate, doing a great one-man-show like this puts Zilbalodis on a few of the same lists as Makoto Shinkai, and I'm excited to see if he builds upon that success in the same way.

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originally posted: 01/04/20 05:47:33
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Gints Zilbalodis

Written by
  Gints Zilbalodis


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