Alberto Vázquez and Pedro Rivero’s Birdboy: The Forgotten Children is a phantasmagoria of impressionistic horror, at once despairing, beautiful, haunting, and surreal. Featuring some of the most emotionally damaged anthropomorphic critters this side of BoJack Horseman, the film envisions a post-apocalyptic world plagued by violence, drugs, depression, and environmental decline, and in which everyone—from Birdboy to his mouse girlfriend, Dinky, to an inflatable raft shaped like a duck—seems to be suffering an existential crisis. The hand-drawn simplicity of these characters only serves to highlight the depth and complexity of their interior lives.
Based on Vázquez’s graphic novel Psiconautas, Birdboy is less interested in telling a straightforward story than in offering up a smorgasbord of striking images and bizarre incidents. The film takes place on an island that’s suffered a catastrophic industrial disaster—a holocaust that’s turned half the land into a rat-infested trash heap and the other into a repressive police state. The story largely centers on Dinky and her friends’ attempt to escape the island and find a better life somewhere else, but Vázquez and Rivero devote just as much of their film’s brief 76-minute runtime to the absurdist emotional crises of a host of supporting characters. These include Birdboy, a quasi-superhero in exile haunted by terrifying visions; two sadistic canine policemen who hunt him; and a pig fisherman who supplies Birdboy with drugs while suffering under a hideous spider that lives inside the dying body of his mother.
Vázquez and Rivero’s storytelling practically creaks under the weight of all this unremitting weirdness, causing Birdboy to feel simultaneously fragmented and over-stuffed. There’s an undercurrent of raw emotion beneath all of the film’s strange happenings, but it can be difficult to get a handle on what exactly this is all supposed to mean. At its most outlandish, the film can feel like oddness for its own sake, as in the scenes at Dinky’s house, where her mother brandishes a baby Jesus doll that weeps blood while her human-faced father dotes on a lucha libre-masked doggy he claims is her brother.
But if you allow yourself to get on its wavelength, Birdboy offers a feast of hallucinatory visual delights and astonishingly visceral horrors. Serene compositions with watercolor-style skies contrast sharply with the harsh intensity of the film’s nightmarish scenarios. Suggesting a German expressionist woodcut come to life, Birdboy’s visions of a giant, howling avian monster silhouetted against a blood-red background are gorgeous and terrifying in equal measure. Vázquez and Rivero’s penchant for undercutting their adorably naïve character designs with an uncanny anxiousness recalls the jittery absurdism of the great Estonian animator Priit Pärn. The filmmakers synthesize these disparate moods and influences into a remarkably coherent visual style, one that makes the film a consistently captivating experience even as its muddled narrative and opaque significance keep us at a distance.