Writer and Director: Gints Zilbalodis
Without a single word spoken, Away is an animated drama that tells the story of a boy trying to find his way home.
We first see the boy hanging from a tree, suspended by a parachute. The landscape around him is arid desert. As the boy hangs limply from his harness, we piece together that something has gone horribly wrong. From a distance, he is being watched by a huge, shadowy giant. Its glowing eyes take in the boy as he walks across to the tree. The giant – silent and unnerving – is loosely reminiscent of The Iron Giant in Brad Bird’s 1999 animation. He plucks the boy from the harness.
Believing he is being pursued, the boy charges ahead as the giant steadily follows from behind. The plodding gait is marked out by director Gints Zilbalodis’ score. A kettle drum pounds as the creature moves closer. The boy discovers that the desert forms part of a lush, verdant island. The boy finds trees and plants (all animated by Zilbalodis). He gulps down water from a nearby lake.
He discovers a backpack, swinging from a tree – a map found inside indicates that, at the far side of the island, there is a harbour. The giant, whose role is left undefined by Zilbalodis, appears malevolent (he devours animals and birds) but as he nudges the boy towards the discovery of a motorbike, the nature of the pursuit becomes harder to pin down.
The journey takes on a more familiar shape, as the boy befriends a tiny yellow bird. Zilbalodis’ animation is delicate and painterly, and the bird is a triumph of characterisation. Within minutes, it conveys more chutzpah than any Disney sidekick. As they travel to the other side of the island, they are followed by a flock of white birds, streaking across the sky in perfect formation. The bird looks up at them. He wants to take flight, but it will mean leaving the boy to undertake the rest of his journey alone.
While being a simple narrative, Away becomes a more complex film as we move through the island. Zilbalodis’ vision is packed with beautifully observed detail. The treatment of sunlight moving through leafy tree tops, mysterious stone formations dotted across the island. Without dialogue, the film creates a complete experience through a sense of place.
Zilbalodis uses music throughout to further illustrate what is happening on screen. Through emotive high points, the music acts like a narrator, guiding us as the boy navigates the many obstacles in his path. His journey is by no means straightforward, and Zilbalodis does a great job of moving us from (gloriously staged) set pieces to building dramatic tension. With a villain whose intent is never quite clear, a feeling of unease seeps into every aspect of the film. Zilbalodis ensures that we are seeing (and feeling) Away from the boy’s perspective.
A story of perseverance, Away packs an emotional heft, and unashamedly so. This is much more than a family film – it reminds us of our need to escape and immerse ourselves into another world. A real creative tour de force from Gints Zilbalodis, Away is a sophisticated exploration of one of our oldest narratives – and this is a journey well worth taking.
Available online from 18 January 2021