It should be obvious by now that I am a big fan of animation, but what may not come across as clearly is my love of horror as well. So in the run-up to Halloween, the spookiest time of the year, I knew I was going to have to put the Studio Ghibli series on hold to highlight some animated horror films, a relatively niche genre. But with the column so far, I’ve almost exclusively covered either English-language or Japanese animation, so I felt I had to go outside of my comfort zone, and I’m glad I did when I found Birdboy: The Forgotten Children.
But first I just want to highlight the search process that led to me finding Birdboy, because when you google ‘animated horror films’ the results can roughly be divided into three sections; live-action films that use some form of animation (Ghostbusters, Army of Darkness, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, etc.); Tim Burton/Henry Selick films (Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie, Nightmare Before Christmas); or the few other Western animated horror films (Dead Space: Downfall, Monster House, and all of the animated Resident Evil and Scooby Doo films). After sifting through this initial selection, you might find some horror-anime recommendations, but overall the international selection is limited, but I did manage to find a few interesting recommendations that I’ll definitely be covering in the future for this column.
I don’t know how Birdboy slipped past my rader in 2015, the poster alone was enough to grab my attention alone. The anthropomorphic character designs reminded me of a mid-2010’s Cartoon Network show, but the colour palette, the design of the locations, and the glimpses of horror you get to see in the trailer, created an interesting disconnect between its overall style and tone. This is made abundantly clear from the very start in the film, it opens on the island where the characters live being decimated by a Nuclear Bomb, and the rest of the film follows the survivors and the children of those who survived carrying on in the new wasteland they live in. While society has rebuilt somewhat in this world, it’s a very uncanny and odd world, something the surreal and abstract animation plays into to create a unique viewing experience.
The film follows a variety of characters in this world from; the titular Birdboy, a drug addicted Bird who struggles to contain the demon that possesses him; the former fisherman, Zachariah, that sells Birdboy drugs as he saves up to escape his abusive and dying mother; Dinky, Sandra and Little Fox, three school children who become disenfranchised with life on the island and attempt to escape; to minor characters like Dinky’s alarm clock (no I’m not joking) and two rats, a father and son, who live in the dump scavenging for copper. Each of these stories play out in an almost Gummo-esque way, although much more narratively cohesive, as the film switches focus and shows different struggles of the post-apocalyptic world that these characters experience. But it is also through this range of characters that the film introduces its social commentary, something I think the film really excels well with. Through these characters the film covers issues of poverty, mental health, racism, drug addiction and emotional abuse, all with incredible poignancy and sophistication. Obviously some of these themes aren’t as clear as others, but the film’s use of metaphor is excellent.
An example of how the film mixes it’s horror with its social commentary comes in one of the most tense scenes of the film. Zachariah’s mother is bed-ridden and addicted to an unnamed drug, despite wanting to leave the island, Zachariah stays because of his attachment to his mother, but as she demands he inject her, we see the fear and terror on his face as a Spider crawls it’s way out of his mother’s nose and grows with an aura of evilness as it berates the increasingly timid Zachariah. It’s a great moment of horror in the film as the spider dominates the screen and its eyes burn red as the colour shifts to a much darker palette. It works on both levels, on one hand it’s a metaphorical parasite representing the drug addiction that has taken over his mother, but it also works as a surface level monster that creates a scene of horror and tension. But the film also uses its own in-universe realism to create horror as well, for example throughout the film we see moments of a father rat and his son scavenging for copper in the dump, but their story climaxes in a moment of pure desolation as they encounter another rival father and son. The two sets of families fight only to leave the father of one family and the son of the other left alive, and these two join together to head off into the dump to scavenge as a new team. But it’s a moment of pure desolation that feels lifted straight out of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and easily one of the most effective moments of horror in the film.
I went on a tangent about the lack of animated horror available to only further highlight how great it can be as shown through a film like Birdboy: The Forgotten Children. While there’s nothing wrong with Tim Burton’s animated classics, or the Resident Evil and Scooby-Doo films, the limitless potential of animation and the amount of cool horror concepts and ideas out there leave me wanting to see more like Birdboy. For a debut feature for co-directors Pedro Rivero and Alberto Vázquez, Birdboy shows tremendous promise going forward. Not only is the animation beautiful, with the perfect blend of the soft, melancholic locations, the abstract and surreal designs, and the horror iconography, all balanced perfectly so as to keep the film engaging throughout it’s runtime. But the writing as well is incredibly sophisticated, as I’ve already talked about, but I really cannot praise the script enough. Choices like keeping Birdboy silent throughout the feature, and integrating moments of comedy throughout, and the social commentary that underpins the narrative all show a level of sophistication that is lacking in a lot of modern animation. For me, being what I would consider a modern masterpiece, Birdboy highlights two main issues in modern animation: first, animated horror is severely lacking and should be one of the most interesting and exhaustive subgenres of animation, and that even outside of animation powerhouses like Asia, there is a growing movement of international animation that is proving what the medium can be, and if Birdboy: The Forgotten Children is anything to go by, the movement is working.