Away (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A little one-man-band animation film

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Latvian independent animation film “Away” looks pretty simple on the surface, but it will surprise and impress you a lot when you learn more about how it was made during its four-year production period. Although it is occasionally hampered by its rather superficial storytelling, there are a series of striking visual moments to be appreciated, and it eventually comes to us as the solid demonstration of its sole creator’s artistic skill and confidence.

The film opens with an unnamed lad waking up to find himself hung on a tree by his parachute. Although we do not get to know that much about this lad, it is implied later in the story that he escaped from a crashing plane, and now he is in some island which feels quite alien to him and us in many aspects. For instance, he encounters a slouching giant figure approaching to him and then trying to swallow him alive, but he somehow manages to escape from this ominous figure and then hide from it.

After that, our hero happens to acquire a number of items which may help him get to a certain important spot of the island. Besides a map showing the route to that spot in question, there are a backpack and a motorcycle, and he also comes to befriend a little yellow bird, which subsequently accompanies him as it cannot fly that well.

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While it generates some tension via that slouching giant figure which continues to pursue our hero, the film leisurely moves from one spot to another along with him, and we are allowed to appreciate the mood and details of its fantasy background more. Although its elementary digital animation may look a bit too broad and simple, the film gradually draws us into its own distinctive style and atmosphere nonetheless, and then we are served with several gorgeous moments which are clearly influenced by the lyrical beauty of Hayao Miyazaki’s animation films. I particularly like a soothing sequence which wonderfully utilizes green colors on the screen, and I also admire a fascinating scene involved with a bunch of identical cats surrounding a big spiral hole.

As shown at the end of the film, everything in the film comes from director/producer/writer Gints Zilbalodis, who also made sound and music for his film in addition to drawing every shot for himself. I have not seen his previous works yet, but the film clearly shows me that he is a talented guy who knows how to intrigue and then engage us. Although the film does not have any dialogue from the beginning to the end, his succinct storytelling lets us gather where his story and character are heading, and he also allows some free interpretation on what our hero goes through. For example, that slouching giant figure may represent the survivor’s guilt inside our hero’s mind, and his journey can be regarded as a mythic healing process toward redemption.

As I mentioned before, the film often suffers from its thin narrative and characterization. Our hero, who looks rather blank and anonymous except his two big eyes and curly hairdo, does not have much personality from the start, and he merely comes to us as a bland allegorical figure in the end. In addition, the film sometimes feels like the over-extended version of a short animation film, and I found myself getting a bit impatient from time to time during my viewing.

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Although becoming more predictable during its second half, the film continues to deliver moments to remember at least. There is a dazzling scene where our hero drives his motorcycle across a big but shallow lake, and then there is a thrilling action scene unfolded around a rickety wooden bridge. While understandably minimalistic at times, Gints Zilbalodis’ score surely soars during these and other fabulous moments in the film, and his dexterous mix of sound and image on the screen is impressive to say the least.

Although I still think it could be improved a bit more in several aspects, the film is still an admirable piece of work which reminds me of how much digital animation technology has been advanced during recent years. Zilbalodis had a very little amount of resource from the beginning, but he tried as much as he could for this passion project of his, and he surely succeeds in pushing the envelope here in this film. Yes, its overall result does look relatively crude compared to those Hollywood digital animation films out there, but its every shot is imbued with personal touches to be savored while presenting new possibilities with digital animation, and this aspect certainly distinguishes the film a lot from forgettable animation flims such as “Spies in Disguise” (2019), which entertained me to some degree but then was quickly faded away from my mind once I walked out of the screening room.

In conclusion, “Away” is worthwhile to watch for its style and mood, and, in my inconsequential opinion, it deserves to be mentioned along with other notable animation films of last year including “Toy Story 4” (2019) and “Missing Link” (2019). While it will probably demand some patience from you due to its slow narrative pacing, the film is a rewarding experience because of its many good moments, and it will be interesting to see what will come next from Zilbalodis during next several years. He is indeed an animator full of talent and potential, and I sincerely hope that this small but significant achievement of his will soon lead him to bigger opportunities to allow him to wield his skill and imagination more than before.

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