Cute anthropomorphic critters deal with some less-than-adorable issues — like depression, murder, environmental disaster, and general hopelessness — in “Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children” (rechristened “Birdboy” for U.S. release). This arresting Spanish animated feature, adapted by co-directors Alberto Vazquez and Pedro Rivero from the former’s graphic novel, offers a complex tonal and conceptual mix of a type that’s not for children, and has crept into print comics for some years now, but seldom surfaces onscreen. Sardonic, cruel, funny, macabre, yet surprisingly good-hearted, this bizarre adventure won’t fit into standard commercial theatrical slots for animated features. But deserved critical and fan support should eventually guide it to its niche audience.
Vazquez and Rivero have collaborated before, notably on 2011’s Goya-winning “Birdboy,” which can now stand as a 12-minute prologue to the equally impressive feature. After recapping that short’s events briefly (an industrial catastrophe kills much of an isolated island’s population, reducing the survivors to various forms of desperation, violence, and poverty in their devastated environment), “Psychonauts” finds the same characters several years along, no longer children but angsty adolescents.
The mute, skeletal outcast Birdboy is still viewed as a community threat for no obvious reason. His erstwhile semi-girlfriend Dinky is a mouse unhappy in her home, where she endures the endless petty disapproval of her religious-hysteric mother, adoptive father, and ill-tempered “brother” (a barking dog in a Santo-style mask). She decides to run away with Birdboy, as well as her best/only friends Zorrit (a timid, bullied fox) and Sandra (a rabbit plagued by literal demons who urge her toward evil deeds). But for that they’ll need money, so they break into an off-limits house to steal from Pig Boy and his bedridden mother, whose apparent drug addiction is in fact itself a sort of demonic possession. A narrow escape from that den of misery hardly ends the young protagonists’ travails, which extend to their near-fatal abduction by a roving pack of glue-sniffing thug rats who zealously guard imagined hidden “treasures” in the vast dump they claim as territory.
Notable peripheral figures include black marketeer Tito Klaus; two macho “police dogs” who frequently try to gun down the hapless Birdboy; Mr. Reloggio, a comically naif robot alarm clock whose blundering into the outside world courts more grotesque abuses than the Marquis de Sade’s Justine; and frightening “Psychobirds” who appear to be Birdman’s supernatural tormentors, yet finally emerge as the secret strength of his internal rage.
You know “Psychonauts” is subversive stuff early on, in a jolting bad-taste humor moment when Dinky’s parents deploy a Baby Jesus doll to vividly illustrate their disappointment in her behavior. Packing a slim running time with ideas and incident, Vazquez and Rivero’s film does a remarkable job juggling seemingly discordant elements within an already weird framework of fey post-apocalyptic cartoon. It’s by turns caustic, rude, bleak, surreal, and violent, leavened by genuine compassion for characters that have a surprising depth of pathos for all their deliberately simple, “cute” line-drawing appearances. (Backgrounds are by contrast rich and painterly.)
The unpredictable yet somehow organic constant tonal tilts, abetted by the film’s diverse mix of visual influences, pulls off a matter-of-fact overall approach to abject tragedy. This gets its starkest illustration in the brief foregrounding of a minor subplot, when one starving, indigent father-and-son duo wearily engage in mortal combat with another pair in precisely the same straits.
Though at first glance this ironically-sweet-and-very-sour mix might seem unappetizing, even repellent, it soon becomes fascinating in its oddball complexity. Among the many vastly more expensive, live-action dystopian visions of recent cinema, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything as original or surprisingly poignant as “Psychonauts.”