On a small island, an elusive young man only known as Birdboy is hated by the populous and hunted by the local authorities, believing that he is the cause of social corruption. But there's young woman named Dinky who knows there’s kindness in Birdboy and tries to get him to leave the island with her and her friends. However, there’s also something dark residing in Birdboy and even though leaving the island could be the salvation he seeks, he refuses to leave and continues on with his father’s mysterious work.
Along with “Nova Seed”, “Psychonauts” was one of the reasons why I wanted to check out the animated films this year at Fantasia Festival. I had no idea about the film’s extensive history but the animation style and surreal-like quality it had is what drew me in. The film was originally conceived as a graphic novel by Alberto Vázquez, afterwords, the (award winning) short film “Birdboy” was created when he teamed up with animator Pedro Rivero. “Psychonauts” picks up right after “Birdboy”, and due to my lack of knowledge of the previous work, I was not prepared for the heavy and emotionally bleak movie that "Psychonauts" is.
Initially, when I went into “Psychonauts”, I was expecting little more than a fantasy tale with a somewhat surreal-ish style. Perhaps a bit of a dark atmosphere too. I was not expecting to see a movie that derives so much of its material from the real world in a story that can be overwhelmingly bleak at times. Thankfully, Pedro and Alberto were able to find the right balance in their movie by using absurdist humor and offering a glimmer of hope to keep from losing their audience.
To its credit, “Psychonauts” finds the right mix of humor and drama in order to let the material play out naturally but also to prevent it from becoming too heavy, even though it might feel like it does at times. Particularly when it starts drawing from real life — everything from drug abuse to the hopelessness of being trapped in a situation that you cannot escape from. It would have been easy for the film to have gotten lost in these elements from either being too dark or coming across as being heavy handed. And while the movie does use real life as inspiration to the characters and story, “Pscyhonauts” isn’t trying to exist as a social commentary piece. Not directly, at least.
Instead its purpose is to bring life out of the characters; to create something that’s tangible for the audience. Even though the world of “Psychonauts” is populated by anthropomorphic animals, there’s something believable in the relationship between Birdboy and Dinky. This relatable context allows for the film’s visual metaphors to play out with an intended impact. One such scene finds the character Zacharias — a young pig who dropped out of school to become a fisherman even though there are no longer any fish in the sea — confronted by the physical manifestation of his mother’s addiction in the form of a giant spider. It would be easy for this scene to become meaningless in style but it says so much about the character, his relationship with his mother, while also creating a situation that the audience can naturally become empathetic towards. In general, this setup of subtext through visual cues is how the film despense a lot of character information and occasionally story information as well. It works beautifully because the visuals carry so much more weight than words — watching Birdboy being eviscerated by his own inner demons says more than expository dialogue.
The film counters those scenes by offering levity through laughs — like an alarm with an AI that wanders the landscape in search of his owner, Dinky, but ends up on an existential journey where he mourns his fallen brethren (in the form of a tin can). Or Dinky’s stepfather; the one human character in the movie who’s disguised himself as a mouse but strangely owns a dog wearing a Lucha mask (or maybe it was a gimp mask). The humor never takes away from the film but rather its there to keep the movie from being too overbearing. That way, by the time that the climax rolls around, the audience is capable of being open to an ending that offers hope to the film’s characters, even if that hope is wrought with heartache.
“Psychonauts” is not a movie for someone who is looking for a casual viewing experience. It is, however, a movie to watch if you’re looking for a thematically rich story that isn’t afraid to make you laugh using an absurdist form of humor or to take you to some emotionally dark corners. Pedro Rivero and Alberto Vázquez aren’t looking to make the audience feel bad but they let reality come through in their work, it’s just unfortunate that reality can be a pretty bleak sometimes.