If heaven is for humans only, then “Beyond Beyond” answers the mystery of where bunnies go instead, spinning a lavishly illustrated yet hard-to-follow animated fable in which a lapine lad travels to extraordinary lengths to reunite with his dead mother. Drawing on aspects of the Scandi folk-tale tradition, scribe-director Esben Toft Jacobsen (“The Great Bear”) and writing partner Jannik Tai Mosholt invent an elaborate mythology around an impressive figure called the Feather King, who guards the realm where Johan, the rabbit boy, must venture, though the trip proves too dark and complicated for family crowds, limiting export prospects.
From the master concept to the individual character designs (big-headed, spindly-armed critters that look adorable when viewed head-on, but awkward from any other angle), someone failed to think everything through upfront. Setting this Orpheus-like journey in a world of animated rabbits might have seemed an appealing way to help kids cope with grief, though it’s conspicuously light on humor and ultimately far more likely to confuse than comfort the target audience.
At the outset, little Johan enjoys his blissful family life. But his mother suffers a nasty cough, and before Johan has a chance to say goodbye, he sees her being carried away by an ominous winged figure — the Feather King. While Johan’s father relocates the family to the open seas, the young bunny refuses to forget his mom, scheming some way for the family to be reunited.
Johan sees his chance when the Feather King returns to collect Radio Bill, an old dog who’s been successfully evading death all these years. Bill is all too happy to give Johan his entry ticket to the other side, allowing the boy to sneak across the dimensional portal and search for his mother — a moment elevated, like so much of the movie, by composer Nicklas Schmidt and his angelic choir.
It’s one thing for Dante Alighieri to make such a trip, but for little bunnies, navigating the afterlife can be a bit intense. Basically, Johan is too naive to accept what all grownups do, which is the permanence of death (if that, indeed, is the unnamed sort of separation being illustrated here). The writers, who met while students at the Danish Film Institute, fancy a scenario in which a child’s imagination takes precedence, building a stunning world within the confines of their tight €2.7 million ($3.7 million) budget, but the script squanders their best inventions — like the half-eagle/half-rabbit Feather King himself.
In much the same way the revisionist North Pole of “The Polar Express” threatened to derail children’s mental image of Christmas, “Beyond Beyond” presents a puzzling alternative to heaven, one that looks like a crumbling Guatemalan village with all of its stacked houses. While Toft Jacobsen has created some striking visuals — including a frog-like Captain who does Charon’s ferryman duties and a strange multi-tentacled creature named Mora that gives orders from a glowing pool of water — there’s little logic in their behavior, and even less poetry in this peculiar allegory he has created. (The original title, “Johan and the Feather King,” literally does a better job of capturing the pic’s spirit.)