So much of the animation market is made up of American productions with star-studded casts and plots designed just to service a stream of pop culture jokes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, they’re fun and entertaining fare, but it’s not often that we get to see an animated film that lets its animation do the talking.
Away, the feature debut from writer/director Gints Zilbalodis, boldly and proudly presents its story silently. Rather than the emotional gut-punch of Up’s silent opening, Away takes it’s time to fully reveal itself and in that way it has more in common with Studio Ghibli’s The Red Turtle. Capturing the audience’s attention simply through the wonder of its animation. Away’s story is pleasantly simple; a boy finds himself marooned on a mysterious island, pursued by an unstoppable, towering, smoky creature, and his only means of escape is to cross the length of the island. Along the way he picks up a few animal companions and even an old motorbike which powers him across the gorgeous and strange island landscape.
Narratively, Away, feels more like a video game than anything else. With a clear and simple goal and a clear and obvious threat, the story is a just journey from A to B with a few obstacles to overcome along the way. It’s even split up into four separate chapters, which feel like different levels; each with a different setting and aesthetic. While the look of the film certainly has more in common with Studio Ghibli than any Western animation (the stalking creature looks like one of the amorphous gloop monsters Hayao Miyazaki is so fond of), the overall feeling seems to have been inspired by The Legend of Zelda rather than another piece of cinema. It’s certainly charming and interesting in its own way, but the trouble is it doesn’t fully hold your attention. Actively travelling through this landscape would have been thrilling in a different context, but unfortunately as a passive observer it does outstay its welcome.
Away was developed from two of Zilbalodis’ previous short films (Priorities – 2014, Oasis – 2017) and it does tell. There are some truly magical set pieces, including a tense walk over a rickety bridge and a beautiful bike ride over a mirrored lake, but it still feels like a story stretched a bit too thin. However, it is an impressive debut and one that will hopefully allow Zilabalodis to work on bigger and more ambitious projects. What’s even more impressive is that Zilabalodis virtually filled every role on the production. Animation, music, editing, script, character models, are all done by him. This labour of love can be felt in every scene and so, despite its 3D computer animation, it still feels like it was hand-crafted. Even though its plot does feel undercooked at times, it’s clearly not from lack of effort. This is what ultimately makes Away feel so impressive; even if it won’t become a classic it’s still wonderful to see an individual’s hard work, especially one who doesn’t try to play it safe.
Animation, Adventure | Latvia, 2019 | PG | Digital HD | 18th January 2021 (UK) | Munro Films Services | Dir.Gints Zilbalodis