Psiconautas, los Niños Olvidados; AKA Psyconauts: The Forgotten Children
“Our passions are the gift of nature, and the main spring of human actions; without them, man would be like a bird without wings, or a ship without sails.”–“The Parlour Companion” (1818)
DIRECTED BY: Pedro Rivero,
FEATURING: Voices of Andrea Alzuri, Félix Arcarazo, Eba Ojanguren. Josu Cubero; Lauren Weintraub, Jake Paque, Sofia Bryant, Dean Flanagan (English dub)
PLOT: This fable takes place on an island inhabited by anthropomorphic animals years after a nuclear disaster has devastated the ecology and economy. Dinky, an adolescent mouse, plans to run away with her friends, hoping to leave the island and find a better life. She desperately wants her boyfriend Birdboy to accompany her, but the feral child is addicted to pills and too absorbed in his own problems to join the small crew.
- Birdboy: The Forgotten Children began life as a graphic novel by Alberto Vázquez. Pedro Rivera, a screenwriter who had directed one animated feature at that time, read the book and got in contact with Vázquez to see if he would be interested in adapting the book into a movie. The two made the short “Birdboy” in 2011 as a proof of concept, then were able to raise funds for the feature film.
- Psiconautas won best animated film at Spain’s 2016 Goya awards but it was not a financial success, grossing a mere $13,000 in Spain and only $52,000 worldwide.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: When Birdboy’s adolescent brain finally breaks and his horde of shadowy bat demons break loose, flocking up his lighthouse lair and coalescing into a dark dragon with glowing red eyes and a vicious pincer beak.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Abused alarm clock; adopted luchador pup; addicted nose spider
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Birdboy is the story of cute, drug-addicted baby animals stranded on a dystopian, post-apocalyptic island. It’s got talking alarm clocks, piggy banks, and inflatable ducks, all of whom have tragic stories to tell. It’s not afraid to give a puppy a rifle, or put one in a skintight leather mask. But for all of this sarcastic nihilism, it’s not a black comedy, but an empathetic fable and an immersive spectacle, told through beautiful and often psychedelic animation.
Trailer for Birdboy: The Forgotten Children
COMMENTS: Birdboy is, honestly, a pretty easy sell. It’s got cute adolescent truant animals with adorable big round heads who take drugs while roaming a post-apocalyptic junkyard and being hunted by a tribe of feral rats. It’s in Spanish. It has throwaway blasphemy and senseless cruelty to anthropomorphic objects to keep you amused. And it ends in a rapturous blast of redemptive violence as a giant shadow bird demon breathes cleansing green fire on a horde of lost souls and tears them limb from limb. Add trippy scenes of glowing firefly souls floating around the tree of life for a psychedelic cocktail that will leave you buzzing after the credits roll.
Well, OK, your grandma probably wouldn’t like it. And I wouldn’t recommend taking your six-year-old niece to see it in her Cinderella costume. But despite the glib, if superficially accurate, description above, Birdboy isn’t a sick nihilist joke played for offensive laughs at its characters’ expense. Its heart overflows with empathy for these forgotten children. Dinky is our primary charge: squabbling with her hypocritically religious parents, stealing their “happy pills” (for Birdboy, not herself), and willing to risk anything to escape the dystopian island. She drags along a timid, bullied fox (so much the eternal victim that he doesn’t even have a proper name) and psychotic bunny Sandra, who has shadowy devils on her shoulders that advise her to hurt the weak. The battered Birdboy, with his huge dilated black eyeballs set in a skull of a face and his tie hanging slack around his neck, is almost more of a symbol the suffering of innocents than a real character. He is feral, almost mythic presence who haunts the island and whom the corrupt puppy police have scapegoated as the source of the local drug trade. Birdboy is not a dealer, however, but an addict, compelled to swallow pills despite the fact that when he does he suffers nightmarish hallucinations which usually end with him being consumed by bats. He’s an orphan, persecuted, mute, haunted, sick, addicted, and (usually) flightless. He’s the forgotten bastard child of all the island’s sins.
Vázquez’s original graphic novel was inspired by Spain’s economic meltdown in the early 1980s, but knowledge of that time and place is not necessary to identify with the world of poverty, squalor and hypocrisy Birdboy paints. Birdboy is a fable, in the classical sense: it uses animals as characters. This choice makes it abstract and universal. The movie devotes as much of its brief run-time to developing its strange world as it does its characters or its simple plot. Restricting the action to one self-contained, isolated island creates an inside world that we get to know intimately, and suggests an unknown outside world, a promised land across the sea where the characters can imagine a better life. Their real world, however, is a dump. Half the island is literally junked, hemmed in by ever-shifting mountains of garbage that render maps useless and ruled by gangs of glue-huffing teenage rats. The civilized hemisphere is a repressive society of autocrats, fascists who scapegoat and hunt innocents like Birdboy. It’s no land for children. Sandra has been driven prematurely mad, while forgotten outcasts like Birdboy retreat into self-abuse. With the fishing industry devastated, a young pig sells drugs to keep his addicted mother medicated. The line between people and objects is broken: alarm clocks and inflatable duckies have free will, interior lives, and even mothers, although the higher caste of animals take out their frustrations on them and treat them as rubbish (with the exception of the empathetic young fox, who takes pity on a piggy bank who pleads for his life after being emptied). The contrast between the Disneyesque animals and their sordid surroundings, amplified by hallucinations alternately nightmarish and pastoral, is a refracted vision of the suffering of innocent children everywhere pummeled by poverty and neglect.
The world is nightmarish, but the film is beautiful. Vázquez has a different color scheme for each mood. The idyllic opening is imagined as geometric shadows against a rosy background that grows an angrier red as the nuclear threat swells. That look is presages Birdboy’s nastier drug hallucinations, where barbed shadow monsters roar against a blood-red background and pick at his torso with their sharp beaks. With its charming baby bunnies and piggies and mousies, “normal” reality could have been taken straight out of a Sunday comic strip, except for the “fake brother” puppy who wears a Mexican wrestler’s mask and humps Dinky’s adopted father’s leg. On the poorer side of town, the same cute beings have a seedier, more ragged look and missing limbs, and the junkyard backgrounds are sketched in dingier shades of brown. Birdboy, lonely soul that he is, is frequently shown dwarfed by the Expressionist landscapes, as when he stands before a forest of chiaroscuro trees drained of color. For every depressive or frightening hellscape, however, there is a corresponding Arcadia; Birdboy knows of a cave where fireflies light the way to a secret grove where a verdant lime-green meadow and a healing pool of blue front a giant tree of love. Birdboy’s suppressed fury erupts in a final scene of bloody horror and revenge, but the film ends in that hopeful forest of glowing acorns.
Birdboy begins with a prologue which explains that this world wasn’t always the way it is now; once the air was clean and the ocean thrived with fish. Maybe not, however; the prologue’s unnamed narrator (Birdboy’s father?) speaks glowingly of the paradisaical past, but the images we see show grim workers marching with downcast eyes to slave at the local nuclear power plant. Perhaps it’s just the disillusionment of an elder looking back at an imaginary golden age of his youth, when the world’s ugliness was hidden from him. An old man prowling the dump for copper to trade for food—which he will then, in turn, trade for copper—tells the wandering children that he used to have a life, but things didn’t turn out the way he planned. “Things never turn out the way you plan,” he adds sagely. Compared to her psychotic, bullied, drug-addled friends, Dinky is a relatively prosperous suburban girl who merely hates her square parents and harbors a crush on a bad boy. That is a character who the audience can relate to. At twelve, few of us hear sinister voices in our heads like Sandra, or are prematurely homeless drug addicts like Birdboy. But we are all starting to develop the consciousness that such evils exist in the world. We are all developing plans to break away and hoping to start a better life for ourselves away from the failures of our elders. And we are all also starting to learn that making a better life is harder than wishing for a better life, that solving problems is tougher than identifying them. For all its black humor and potentially distancing fantasy, Birdboy succeeds because it loves these sad children and appreciates their hope. In Spanish The Forgotten Children translates to los niños olvidados, a title that begs comparisons to‘s melancholy cycle-of-poverty classic Los Olvidados. Vazquez and Rivero show an empathy and humanism, filtered through bold and bitter imaginations, that justify a choice of title that might have seemed almost presumptuous.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Packing a slim running time with ideas and incident, Vazquez and Rivero’s film does a remarkable job juggling seemingly discordant elements within an already weird framework of fey post-apocalyptic cartoon. It’s by turns caustic, rude, bleak, surreal, and violent, leavened by genuine compassion for characters that have a surprising depth of pathos for all their deliberately simple, ‘cute’ line-drawing appearances.”—Dennis Harvey, Variety (contemporaneous)
“…this bizarro rendering of adorable critters set against macabre, impressionistic backgrounds is decidedly not for little ones. As adult animation goes, ‘Birdboy’ is its own weird, woolly and surprisingly sensitive foray into the grimmer corners of life. But at its best, when Vázquez and Rivero hit the right mix of melancholy and acidic in their battered fever dream, it plays like a troubled schoolkid’s secret drawings brought to colorful, if unapologetically horrific, life.”—Robert Abele, The Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)
“…a weird, brutal and lyrical Spanish animated film… Events are a bit too compressed, and it’s not helped by Vazquez’s dense, dream logic mythology… As a snapshot of a very strange society, it works. As a narrative, it falls short.”—David James, We Got This Covered (contemporaneous)
Psiconautus, the Forgotten Children – There’s a lot of material at the bilingual official site, including the Spanish trailer, stills, and six short clips
Birdboy: the Forgotten Children – GKIDS films – The English language distributor’s site has a selection of stills, the English language trailer, and a lovely downloadable press kit including an interview with Vázquez and Rivera
IMDB LINK: Birdboy, the Forgotten Children (2015)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
‘Birdboy: The Forgotten Children’: Inside the Year’s Darkest, Most Daring Hand-Drawn Animated Movie – Background on the film from IndieWire
FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL DIARY, 7/23/2016 (PSYCHONAUTS, THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN) – Our initial report on Birdboy from the 2016 Fantasia Festival
RAW AUDIO: PEDRO RIVERO “PSYCHONAUTS” INTERVIEW – G. Smalley’s brief audio interview with Pedro Rivera
Psiconautas – Alberto Vázquez’s original graphic novel (in Spanish)
Psiconautas Los Ninos Olvidados Art Book – A hardcover book of art from the movie (text in Spanish)
HOME VIDEO INFO: Shout! Factory releases most of GKIDS acquisitions, and so it is with Birdboy, the Forgotten Children, which is available as of 2018 in either in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack (buy) or solo DVD (buy). The transfer is beautiful, reverently reproducing the hand-drawn artwork that spans the entire color spectrum. You can watch the film either in subtitled Spanish or in a (not bad) new English-language dub. Extras include dubbed and subtitled versions of the U.S. trailer; twelve minutes of interviews with Rivera and Vázquez; the original 2011 “Birdboy” short, a prequel done in a more primitive (but equally imaginative) animation style; and Vázquez’s award-winning 2016 black and white short “Decorado,” which is significantly more surreal than Birdboy (as you might guess from the trailer), features “sexy” mermaids and a skid-row version of Donald Duck, and is exclusive to this disc.
The feature is also available to rent or purchase on demand.