Tag Archives: Fable

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: JOHNNY AQUARIUS (1993)

Jancio Wodnik; AKA Johnnie the Aquarius, Johnny Waterman

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DIRECTED BY: Jan Jakub Kolski

FEATURING: Franciszek Pieczka, Grazyna Blecka-Kolska, Boguslaw Linda, Katarzyna Aleksandrowicz

Still from Johnny aquarius

PLOT: An old farmer leaves his young wife and sets forth on a journey through the countryside to fulfill a higher purpose; along the way, he discovers that he possesses healing abilities, and he abandons his family in favor of the cult springs that springs up around him.

COMMENTS: You have to be a little forgiving of fables. They’re not to be taken literally, of course. If a character in a fable behaves badly, well, that’s the whole point; they will get their comeuppance, and we’ll all learn an important lesson. And if the story dabbles in fantasy, with magic or hints of the supernatural, that only magnifies the examination of humanity at the heart of the tale.

So it was with all my might that I tried to keep from getting unreasonably mad at the hero of Jańcio Wodnik, who turns his back on his family in search of deeper meaning and is soon corrupted by arrogance and obsequious adulation. After all, when we first meet poor Jańcio, he’s experiencing a spiritual crisis. His young wife has not managed to get pregnant, despite the fact that she has hung upside down 11 separate times in order to get his seed to the right spot. He’s beginning to lose his trust in gravity in other ways, too, having watched water flowing up a ladder to fill a bird’s nest. The only thing left to do is go out on a pilgrimage, bearing on his back nothing but a washing tub to keep his feet clean, which is a bit of an obsession for him. His devoted wife Weronka kindly lets him go, singing a song of sadness but understanding as he departs. If she’s not angry with him, what right have I to be?

It is curious how quickly Jańcio breaks bad. When he first meets Stygma, a roving motorcyclist who picks up extra cash here and there by piercing his hands with nails and showing up in local towns as the crucified Christ, he seems unimpressed with the blasphemy. But he also suspects that there’s something special in his foot washing, and when he offers to help the sick and the lame, the shocking thing isn’t that his ablutions work, or that Stygma will look for ways to capitalize on these gifts, or even that a small community of worshipers will descend upon him with gifts of money, sex, and adulation. No, what takes your breath away is how easily Jańcio succumbs to pride and hubris. He returns to his old home like a Roman emperor, telling his now-pregnant wife how utterly unimportant she is, and bestowing upon her the dubious gift of a car (which is carried on a litter by a phalanx of strongmen). It’s a striking sight, witnessing the simple man rendered cruel and haughty by his power. Surely his fall will be a sight to behold. 

The turn comes quickly, as his son is born with a tail and impervious to his ministrations. Indeed, all of his cures are quickly undone, and he is so dumbstruck by his folly that he sits motionless outside his house, unperturbed by the snow or the leaves or even the birds that nest upon his head. Years pass before a vision awakens him out of his stupor and returns him to face his wife and child. And the moral of this tale? Well, that’s perhaps the most unexpected twist of all, because it turns out that the cause of all this folly lies in a vignette that appears at the start of the film and is referenced once again before roaring to life in the final scenes: a sickly horse has been sent away from its farm to die alone, and in a truly strange bit of backfilling, Jańcio angrily confronts the horse’s owner (whom we have never seen before) to tell him that this bit of cruelty is single-handedly responsible for all of the misfortune that has followed. Jańcio Wodnik sets itself up to be a fable about gullibility or the dangers of taking on false holiness, and then out of nowhere hits you with Chekhov’s Horse.

Jańcio Wodnik is a light parable, charming but ultimately with no weight to it. A fable doesn’t have to be heavy-handed, but it feels like it should leave you wiser than you were before it began. Weronka does teach us to be steadfast and true, and Jańcio warns us against getting too big for your britches. But the lesson of “don’t turn out your sick horse or an old man will abandon his family and believe himself to be anointed by God” doesn’t exactly give Aesop a run for his money.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a slight but unusual charmer sustained by fine perfs and an inventive script… Recurrent joy of the pic is how all the crazy goings-on are treated as absolutely normal by the peasants.” – Derek Elley, Variety

(This movie was nominated for review by haui. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

Johnny Aquarius
  • Factory sealed DVD

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: MOMO (1986)

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DIRECTED BY: Johannes Schaaf

FEATURING: Radost Bokel, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Leopoldo Trieste, Mario Adorf, Bruno Stori, John Huston

PLOT: The residents of a small town adopt Momo, a young girl found living in a cave, embracing her unusual ability to focus their minds; when the Grey Gentlemen arrive to steal the community’s time and put it on a course to unfettered production, Momo must work with the Master of Time to defeat them.

Still from Momo (1986)

COMMENTS: The lovable moppet is a hallmark of storytelling. From Little Orphan Annie to Pippi Longstocking, we’ve got a thing for a girl with wild hair, wide-eyed optimism, and a knack for outwitting stuffy authorities. Based on those criteria, Momo is a worthy addition to their ranks. Radost Bokel looks perfect in the role, with her beaming eyes and radiant smile. It’s not hard to see why the townspeople are immediately drawn to her.

On the other hand, maybe she’s no great shakes, because these residents seem to be a pretty malleable lot. When the first of the Grey Gentlemen shows up at the barber shop to explain at length how time enjoyed is time wasted, the barber’s immediate buy-in suggests they’ve lucked into a particularly uncritical subject. But before long, everyone else has fallen under their sway, with a quick end to leisurely lunches at the local cafe, impromptu concerts by the neighborhood busker, and kids role-playing epic sea battles. It seems that only Momo could possibly turn things around.

This turns out to be true, but it’s not an especially dramatic standoff. Momo frustrates expectations by delivering so much of its conflict as exposition, rather than showing the tension at play. When one of the Gentlemen tries to buy Momo off with an increasing number of dolls, there’s never a moment’s hesitation as to whether she will be seduced by the crass commercial product; she just doesn’t like the dolls. We never see troubadour Gigi fall prey to the lure of fame; he just ends up there, and there’s not much to suggest he sees his own fate as tied up with that of the girl he lamely tries to save. And so it goes. The film has some extraordinary sets and settings, but so many of the critical twists and turns in the plot happen somewhere that we’re not looking.

The reason seems to lie at the feet of Michael Ende, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel. (He also cameos in the movie’s opening minutes as the train passenger who “has plenty of time.”) Ende’s hands-on participation was due in no small part to his experience with The Neverending Story, a previous adaptation where he had little say and despised the end product. If Ende was happier with Momo, it’s probably because it has a very literary feel, dispensing with gaudy special effects and unfolding in scenes that feel like chapters. There is magic at play here, but no glitter and spark. Ende asks viewers to trust that there’s something special about Momo without the need to manufacture wonder. And that’s very mature and respectful, but the result is a movie that feels very much like… a book.

The most magical thing in the film turns out to be John Huston. In his last big screen appearance, the legendary actor/director turns on all the charm, going for maximum twinkle-in-the-eye warmth as he guides Momo through his realm. Even as he’s called upon to provide much of the explanation for what’s going on – he also serves as narrator – he carries an elegaic air that lends enormous power to the film. If Ende’s pages depict a tired but sage overseer of time, Huston is unquestionably what he had in mind. Appropriate that the only person able to slip free of Momo’s limitations is a great filmmaker himself.

Momo is a serviceable fable, with a valuable message about the corrupting influences of ambition, capitalism, and adulthood. But it’s dry and lacking in color, skeptical of the trappings of a fairy tale even as it relies upon them. The film ends with Momo and the townspeople in a raucous celebration, and it’s the most anyone has committed to anything in the film. Better to stick with John Huston and his precocious turtle. They really believe in something.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…visually one sometimes believes one has been transported to a German silent film… it sometimes comes across as too episodic.”– Evil Ed (translated from German)

(This movie was nominated for review by Morgan, who used reverse psychology by suggesting ” don’t even think about adding Momo [1986] onto that list.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: UNICORN WARS (2022)

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Unicorn Wars is currently available for VOD rental.

DIRECTED BY: Alberto Vázquez

FEATURING: Voices of Jon Goirizelaia, Jaione Insausti, Itxaso Quintana, Ramón Barea

PLOT: Cuddly teddy bears are at war with mysterious unicorns; meanwhile, simians are undertaking a sinister ritual.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: If rainbow caterpillars devouring Snuggly’s oozing form doesn’t do it for you, Unicorn Wars has plenty more madness to share—most of it far more disturbing.

COMMENTS: Dark visions come in all colors, it seems, as proved by Alberto Vázquez’s latest animated feature, Unicorn Wars. Traditionally a medium for children’s and family films, cartoons have a lesser-appreciated history as a means of capturing distress and madness which, for various reasons, may be impossible to convey with live-action, even when heavily injected with unsettling practical effects or CGI. Be they Gerald Scarfe’s vivid grotesques from Pink Floyd: the Wall,  or Ralph Bakshi‘s racially-charged brutality in Coonskin, or ‘s and Cristóbal León‘s eerie stop-motion in The Wolf House, or Vázquez’s own dark flights of fantasy in Birdboy, animation can be a sure-fire way to capture the uncapturable, and to illuminate some of the most harrowing imaginings put to screen. Unicorn Wars joins this canon of wrenching, disturbing fare. And it does it with cutesy teddy bears.

Bluey and Tubby are brothers in boot camp. Their bunk-mates include Pompom, the Cuddly-Wuddly twins, and Coco, the grizzled teddy who has seen it all. Under the harsh mentorship of their drill sergeant (“Here, ‘cuddles’ are made of steel, blood, and pain!”), the latest recruits are preparing for a mission into the heart of the nearby forest to investigate the fate of lost outpost. Bluey is driven by ambition and insecurity, striving to be the best, and tormenting his brother Tubby. Meanwhile, in the forest, María the unicorn seeks her lost mother, last seen in what is perhaps a vision: a viscous dream of ill-formed goo and an all-consuming monster. The new teddy troops are dispatched, ultimately setting into motion a final confrontation between the teddy bears and the unicorns.

Unicorn Wars is dark, dark, dark, but it presents itself as, perhaps, something of a comedy-of-incongruity. (The humor is of the type found in the needlessly unsavory “Happy Tree Friends.”) Vázquez puts his boot-campers through the typical montage motions: dehumanizing treatment, callous mental conditioning (the hymnal chant, “Dead Unicorn, Good Unicorn”, well illustrates the mindset of these pastel-painted patriots), and violent rivalries. The mood shifts resolutely away from uneasy comedy once the troupe enters the woods and messily devour a clutch of rainbow-toned caterpillars. The ensuing psychedelic frenzy, rendered in all the colors of the blacklight rainbow, is when Unicorn Wars kicks into full sprint, removing any hope for the characters—and viewer.

I will readily admit that this is one of the most harrowing movies I’ve seen. Jaundiced though both my eyes have become over the years, I was still speechless and immobile all through the climactic finale, where teddy bear massacres unicorn, unicorn gore teddy bear, and brother destroys brother. Were it not for its many moments of deeply troubling events, and occasional blasts of sickening horror, I would have “Recommended” Unicorn Wars. As it stands, I can only warn potential viewers: this is heart-wrenching, eye-glazing drama, soaked in bright pinks, powder blues… and reds.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Provocative, bright, weird, and completely out of left field, Unicorn Wars is one hell of a drug..” -Kate Sánchez, But Why Tho? (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE PLAGUE DOGS (1982)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , Christopher Benjamin, James Bolam

PLOT: A pair of dogs escape from a medical experimentation facility in Scotland and are hunted down as possible carriers of the bubonic plague.

Still from The Plague Dogs (1982)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Yes, the idea of a depressing animated film about the horrors of animal experimentation is a strange one; but, accepting the oddness of the subject matter, Plague Dogs‘ execution is straightforward.

COMMENTS: “Why do they do it? I’m not a bad dog.”

Movie openings don’t come much bleaker than this: a black Labrador is swimming in a tank of water, exhausted and struggling to keep his head above water. “I think he’s starting to pack it in,” says the white-coated lab scientist observing him. The lab’s legs stop paddling, his eyes glaze over, and he sinks to the bottom. A hook appears and grabs him by the collar. “I think he went a little longer that Wednesday’s test,” the scientist observes as the dripping canine is hauled from the pool. He’s resuscitated, he’s vitals are measured, and he’s thrown back into a stone-floored cage with dozens of other dogs in varying states of wretchedness and despondency. The scientists schedule his next trip into the tank for Monday.

If this opening gives you the animal lover in you pause, then realize that it does get better for Rowf the Labrador—but only because it can’t get worse than being drowned multiple times a week. With the help of Snitter, a terrier with an ugly bandage duct-taped to his head to cover up the opening in his skull through which the white coats have been digging into his brain, he does escape the hellish laboratory; but life on the outside (rural Scotland) is not so easy, either. Snitter once had a human master, and believes they can find one again; but people treat them as mangy strays and shoo them away. On the edge of starvation, Rowf figures out how to kill a sheep, which of course angers the neighboring shepherds. Meanwhile, the scientists are afraid the escaped dogs will bring them bad press, and so spread the rumor that they are carrying the bubonic plague, which causes the locals to shun the dogs more. They eek out an existence on the edge of starvation with the help of the Tod, a scheming fox who teaches them how to live in the wild in exchange for sheep scraps. But their days are numbered, as a posse inevitably closes in.

As if that’s all not bad enough, Snitter has a tragic backstory of how he lost his beloved master. He has flashbacks to his happier days, sitting by the fireplace with his master scratching his head. His heartbreak is squared, when you realize what he’s lost. He’s also suffering canine madness brought about by all that brain probing—and sometimes, you wish he would stay lost in his delusions. There is no joy and very little humor in The Plague Dogs: the tone alternates between despondent and harrowing. The only spark of hope is Rowf and Snitter’s refusal to abandon each other. At times, each decides to lie down and wait for death, only to have the other pick him up to face another miserable day. And yet, you have to give the movie credit; it’s uncompromising in its viciousness, and sadly beautiful. Have a hanky nearby; this one goes in the pile with emotionally devastating adult cartoons like Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and When the Wind Blows (1986).

The animation is good, not great, but the artists have carefully studied canine movements to give these two anthropomorphic pooches realistic mannerisms. Snitter helplessly scratches at his bandage with his paw; Rowf, wary, slinks out of his cage. Snitter’s two dream sequences are mildly inventive, mixing color with black and white to create doggy dreams.

Snitter and Rowf are a classic outlaw team, outsiders whom we root for against the “legitimate” authorities. On the surface, the movie is a vicious attack on animal experimentation, but our heroes could easily stand for oppressed minorities, or the poor and homeless—anyone who’s undeserving of the hardships, scorn and fear society saddles them with. Or, it could be a pure existential allegory about the callous indifference of fortune, which doesn’t care if we’re good or bad dogs when it randomly doles out its head-scratches or its drownings.

For years, The Plague Dogs was only available in the 82-minute American theatrical version. In 2019 Shout! Factory dug up the extended 105 minute version and restored the film by splicing in two prints. They offer both versions of the film on Blu-ray (although I’m not sure who’s interested in seeing the shorter cut), and include a 15-minute interview with Rosen as a bonus feature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By dealing mostly with talking, thinking animals as traditional cartoons do, but putting them into strange and harsh circumstances, the film also hammers home its differences from Disney-style animations and their refusal to face real-world problems except in disguised and symbolic form.”–David Sterritt, The Christian Science Monitor (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Jamie,” who recommended it “not so much for its content but the fact that this film was actually made (who greenlit a film about a pair of dogs going through hell, and then tried to sell it as an adventure film), as well as its exceedingly nihilistic and morbid tone (all for a story about talking dogs!)” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

351. BIRDBOY: THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN (2015)

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)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: ,

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.

Still from Birdboy, The Forgotten Children (2015)

BACKGROUND:

  • 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 Continue reading 351. BIRDBOY: THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN (2015)