More than anything, Away is proof of how powerful one person’s art can be. This little animated film is written, directed, animated and composed by Gints Zilbalodis, and with each element of the film honed with such panache, it makes for a hugely satisfying experience.
The film – which runs without a single line of dialogue – follows a young boy as he wakes up dazed on a mysterious island, pursued by a relentless, vacuous beast. It opens in a really abstract manner that sets the tone for the whimsical experience to come – he is chased by this beast, swallowed by it, and eventually escapes it – and even in these few moments, it’s instantly a rollercoaster, impossible not to be engulfed by the stunning visuals. Zilbalodis clearly has an eye for beautiful animation – this is his first feature, after a series of short films – and every element, from the sprawling deserts to the rich greener and seemingly endless oceans are designed incredibly. It’s so compelling to peel off more layers of this island as our protagonist does – a boy almost entirely alone save for a baby chick and the lurking presence of the beast – and before even considering what Zilbalodis tries to do with the film’s story, it’s a sheer visual wonder.
And perhaps it’s the visual bravery of Away that makes its story so engaging. As mentioned, there isn’t a single line of dialogue, but it never feels like plot is shoved into the background, and it’s conveyed expertly through events, visuals and body language – think Pixar’s consistently terrific animated shorts, but running at 75 minutes. Despite the colourful visuals, Away isn’t necessarily a children’s film: Zilbalodis hones a surprisingly existential plot, swelling with emotion and tension, exploring not only the island, but the loneliness the boy faces, and his seemingly insurmountable task of escaping scot-free. The plot structures itself neatly as individual sections, each focusing on his journey through a different part of the island, which allows for plenty of exploration, although it does falter somewhat towards the end – perhaps the act of trudging across the island becomes a little banal – although it picks up for a finale filled with tension and brimming with hope.
Yet more than just an interesting story, it seems Zilbalodis is going for something much more sentimental. Away not only feels like an exploration of the vividness of childhood imagination – the illustrious island feels like the sort of story plucked from the mind of a daring child, with the boy’s journey across a world but serene and dangerous a manifestation of this – but it seems to also have a more nuanced subtext regarding war, the death of innocents, and the destructive power of grief. And the fact that all of this is communicated so expertly without a single line of dialogue is an outstanding achievement. The fact that the bond between a voiceless boy and a chick he meets on his journey becomes so brimming with emotion and power says it all: that this is a grown-up animated film, exploring much deeper into humanity and relationships than most do.
One thing worth noting, which once again proves the vividness of Zilbalodis’ world, is that Away would make a truly terrific game. His world is so rich, so dense and fascinating, that you’ll want to spend as much time there as possible, and the beauty of having a mute protagonist is that you can transmute countless attributes, experiences and viewpoints onto him: it becomes an existential mirror, that is sure to stimulate the minds of children and adults alike.
And despite not having a single line of dialogue – something I can’t emphasise enough as being such a bold and rewarding choice – Away is an animated film with the depth and emotional maturity only rivalled by Disney and Pixar. What it achieves from just music and visual storytelling is something many animated films can’t manage even with a full script: it’s emotional, gripping, and sets the imagination alight. It’s a film brimming with artistic flair and visual wonder, and Zilbalodis hones every element of it incredibly.
AWAY is available to pre-order now from Apple TV and iTunes. It can be purchased from Sky Store, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Rakuten and Sony from January 18th, as well as Curzon Home Cinema from 25th January.