Judge Gordon Sullivan has a walking, talking teddy bear.
"David Lynch meets Donnie Darko"
Rupert Sheldrake put forward the idea of morphic resonance to explain a fairly common but inscrutable phenomenon: often, it seems, two people, independently, get the same idea at the same time. The most famous example is probably Newton and Leibniz independently deriving differential calculus, and Sheldrake's theory is that something "out there" in the world resonates such that two people can be on the same wavelength and thus have the same idea apparently independently. It's easy to be cynical about Hollywood's occasional brush with coincidence—it's more often greed than any morphic resonance—but strangely two films about young men coming to grips with having a sentient teddy bear came out independently in 2012. The more famous of the two is the foul-mouthed Ted, the debut live-action feature from Seth MacFarlane. The less well-known version is Animals. While it's not as funny as Ted, many viewers will appreciate its dark take on the perils of growing up.
Facts of the Case
Pol (Oriol Pla, Year of Grace) is just your average seventeen-year-old high school student. Except he's got a talking bear, called Deerhoof, to keep him company. They talk, they play music, and Deerhoof helps Pol cope. Then the attractive and mysterious Ikari (Augustus Prew, Kick-Ass 2) shows up at school, and Pol finds himself increasingly drawn towards him, and away from Deerhoof.
It's hard to tell a coming-of-age story. Most of us have been there or are going through those difficult times when childhood bleeds into adulthood, responsibilities pile on, and maturity comes too soon and too late. It's not uncommon to find writers and filmmaker searching for a metaphor to help viewers navigate these troubled waters—the first three seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were all about using horror tropes to stand in for the pains of high school. So Animals is ostensibly treading familiar paths. However, what appears as the run-of-the-mill story of growing up turns out to be infinitely weirder and more interesting than the surface would suggest.
The best thing about Animals is that it is committed to its premise,
and it creates a world in which Deerhoof feels perfectly normal. It reminds me a
little bit of those glimpses we've seen of artists imagining a grownup Calvin
from Calvin and Hobbes; in the strip it made perfect sense for him to
have a tiger that was alive, even if adults couldn't get on board.
Animals is much the same way. It makes perfect sense that Pol would have
a walking, talking teddy bear that speaks in a synthesized voice. Part of the
reason it works is that the whole film has a beautifully stylized look that
makes it look just different enough from the everyday to be believable. Another
reason it works is that Deerhoof is beautifully realized. He moves with a liquid
grace that looks animated and puppeteered at the same time.
Finally, the film eschews the typical story of an outcast boy falling in love with an outcast girl. Instead, Pol falls for Ikari, and the film handles their romance with an impressive degree of tenderness. Rather than making Pol an already gay young man, it seems that Animals is more interested in exploring what it's like to awaken to the possibility that one might be gay, falling in love experienced as something pure because it's unexpected. The payoff from this part of the plot is ultimately a bit limited, but I commend writer/director Forés for trying something outside the box.
The folks at Artsploitation have done another fine job taking an under-seen but well-made film and giving viewers an excellent DVD presentation. Things start with an excellent 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. There's a lushness to the visuals that translates perfectly in this image. Detail is strong throughout, with well-saturated colors that never bleed. Black levels stay consistent and deep as well, with no serious noise or compression artefacts to mar the image. The Dolby 5.1 track in Catalan is well-balanced, with clear dialogue and solid use of the surrounds for atmosphere. There are two subtitle tracks; one translates the Catalan dialogue in English, while the other provides subtitles for Catalan and the English Deerhoof speaks as well. It's a small touch, but appreciated.
Extras start with a commentary by director Forés and Artsploitation representative Travis Crawford that does a fine job giving listeners a sense of the genesis of the project, the themes at work, and how much of the look of the film was achieved. A 20-minute making-of gives us a viewer of the set, including interviews with the cast and the crew. We also get the original "Animals" short out of which the feature grew. We also get a short documentary on the film ("The Bear Truth") that includes interviews with people about their own teddy bears. The film's trailer is also included. As with other Artsploitation releases, the DVD cover is reversible, and an eight-page booklet includes a nice interview with the film's director.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Animals is weird and dark. The comparisons to David Lynch are apt, insofar as both filmmakers look at the everyday from a slightly skewed angle, giving viewers a surreal sense that something totally strange could be happening next door. It's not a sense that everyone will appreciate.
Animals will never be as popular as 2012's other stuffed-animal film, but it does offer an interesting take on the coming-of-age tale. The excellent audiovisual presentation and decent extras make this one an easy recommendation for adventurous viewers.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Artsploitation Films
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