Psychonauts, the Forgotten Children is a weird, brutal and lyrical Spanish animated film (with no connection to the Double Fine game of the same name) that feels like the mutant lovechild of Hayao Miyazaki and John Kricfalusi. Alberto Vazquez, adapting his own graphic novel with co-director Pedro Rivero, spins us a tale of cute child animals desperate to escape their nightmare island.
Any suspicions that this is for children vanish pretty quickly in the opening narration, which explains how Cute Animal Island industrialized itself and subsequently suffered a catastrophic nuclear meltdown. In an apocalypse scene reminiscent of Barefoot Gen, the mice workers are scorched into ashen skeletons by a wall of radioactive fire.
The aftermath is a warped world of trash and cruelty. A gigantic no-man’s land rubbish dump inhabited by desperate rats occupies half the island, the other half suffering under a violent police state. So, it’s no wonder that teen mouse Dinki makes plans to escape for a happier life in some distant mythical city. She’s joined by two friends, a schizophrenic rabbit battling voices in her head that tell her to do horrible things and a meek, bullied and submissive fox.
But it’s a further friend that proves key to the story: the mysterious Birdboy. Staring balefully a the horizon with Tim Burton black hole eyes and a funeral suit that doubles as wings, he leads a strange existence, hunted by the murderous police and obsessively planting glowing golden acorns. Not to mention that he’s also desperately addicted to drugs and suffers nightmarish hallucinations of Pterodactyl-like demons tearing him to pieces.
Aside from the anthropomorphic animals, inanimate objects display a weird half-intelligence. Inflatable duck boats mourn the loss of their families, piggy banks fear drowning and a robotic alarm clock sees a pile of tin cans as a massacre. There’s also a drug-addicted spider that lives in an comatose pig’s nose, a luchador dog with engineering aspirations and a parrot that plaintively cawks “Lolita.. Lolita..”
Psychonauts isn’t just bizarre, it’s also strikingly pretty, its storybook aesthetic a nice contrast with the violent nihilism. The background art alone creates a stunning sense of place, each location designed to emphasize the loneliness and decay that covers every inch of the island.
Vazquez and Rivero also have a neat line in fluid action sequences, in particular Birdboy’s genuinely disturbing nightmares, in which horrible clawed creatures ooze from the shadows. This makes for the high point: the climactic action sequences in which Birdboy visits hell upon those menacing his friends. It’s a neat mirror of the nuclear fire from the intro sequence, carefully balanced to be both terrifying and exhilarating all at once.
However, I’m guessing a direct consequence of such high-quality animation is the brief n’ breezy 76 minute runtime. Events are a bit too compressed, and it’s not helped by Vazquez’s dense, dream logic mythology. Perhaps it makes more sense if you read the graphic novel in advance, but there are several plot elements that go unexplained. It’s possible to infer the broad strokes of what’s going on, but the emotional heft is diminished without the particulars.
On top of that there’s a few too many quirky subplots for my taste. The story would be far better served by zeroing in on the four lead children rather than cutting away to vestigial characters whose subplots peter out in the last third. As a snapshot of a very strange society, it works. As a narrative, it falls short.
Still, it’s a nicely individualistic film obviously fuelled by a strong imaginative vision. In an era of bubble-wrapped focus-grouped animation, it’s refreshing to see something that lets its freak flag fly with zero concern for audience sensibilities. Perhaps Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children is not a vital watch, but definitely a worthwhile curio.
Psychonauts, the Forgotten Children is bizarre, imaginative and beautiful, but it's also crying out for a stronger narrative.