The name of the L.A.-based festival that celebrated its inaugural edition in October is declarative: Animation Is Film. But that manifesto is only partially upheld by Santiago Caicedo’s black-and-white feature “Virus Tropical,” which is closely adapted from the graphic novel of the same name by Power Paola, the nom de plume of Colombian-Ecuadorian cartoonist Paola Gaviria. This is most definitely a striking animation, but whether its storytelling passes muster is quite another matter.
The visual treatment here, following the lead of Gaviria’s own art direction (she reportedly produced about 5,000 individual drawings for the film) is the source of a great deal of the film’s charm, as it combines with deliberate naiveté a variety of different lo-fi, 2D black-and-white styles, from its boldly graphic, childlike, line-drawn characters, to the rickety, intricate cityscape backdrops, to the more prettified, watercolor-wash-style interludes of cloudy skies and birds in trees. And while the transitions between scenes are sometimes a little puzzling, more often they’re inspired and compel us forward through the shaggy narrative, smoothing the bumps between the story’s rather random-feeling series of episodes. This is particularly true of the arresting opening sequence in which the raindrops that hammer down outside a bedroom in 1976 Quito where a man and a woman are having noisy sex, turn into spermatozoa tadpoling gamely through the Jules Verne-like tunnels of the woman’s fallopian tubes. Lo, an egg is fertilized, and a zygote becomes an embryo.
The miracle of conception here is even more miraculous than usual, as the woman, Hilda (voiced by Alejandra Borrero) had undergone a tubal ligation some time beforehand, and a succession of doctors is so sure she cannot be pregnant that they diagnose her with various other conditions to account for her pregnancy symptoms, one of which is the titular “Virus Tropical.” The resulting baby is the author and narrator herself, Paola (Maria Cecilia Sanchez). But while there’s a witty irony in calling one’s autobiography after the misdiagnosis of one’s own conception, it’s a quality only demonstrated sporadically afterward. Indeed the provocative idea that Paola herself might have been considered an affliction is never explored again after this spiky, entertaining start.
Instead we follow the ins and outs and highs and lows of Paola’s fairly typical journey to adulthood, in which the least typical aspect is that her father, Uriel (Diego Leon Hoyos), had left the priesthood to raise a family with Hilda. They already had two girls, Claudia (Camila Valenzuela) and Patty (Mara Gutiérrez), by the time Paola came unexpectedly along.
As a baby, Paola is doted on by Claudia and resented by Patty, but that dynamic reverses when Patty makes her first communion and Claudia starts to run a little wild as a teen, especially after Uriel leaves his family to return home to Medellín. His departure is a good example of the way the storytelling in “Virus Tropical” goes awry. As an ex-priest who is seen to occasionally host family masses at home, Uriel is a character rich with intriguing possibilities (not least in how his paradoxical relationship with the Church will impact his children’s religiosity). Yet we’re given no concrete reason for his abandonment, and once he’s gone, he’s scarcely mentioned till he suddenly pops back up again.
So not much significance is attached to Paola growing up without a male authority figure even though the story’s largely female ensemble seems to beg for a feminist, gender-issue-oriented reading. Uriel’s leaving is largely stakes-free, simply a thing that happens, like Claudia’s similarly sudden exodus to the Galapagos or Hilda’s decision to uproot to Cali and so on. It is a narrative packed with incident, but lacking in the connective logic that helps us to see the forces that shaped us into adults: in short, it’s more diary than drama.
Beneath the beguiling imagery and Adriana Garcia Galán’s pleasant soundtrack that melds pan-pipe motifs and Latin-rhythm-inflected folk rock, the characters have almost as little depth as their simplified images. Paola is a blank slate who experiences the normal rites of passage of growing up (first period, first boyfriend, loss of virginity and so on) without seeming too profoundly affected by any of them. Supporting characters too are dogged by inconsistencies that might be true to life as Gaviria experienced it, but as told just make them seem unmotivated.
The more adult topics that are touched upon, such as recreational drug use and sexual activity, despite their relatively timid presentation, put the picture outside the realm of kids’ film, yet there’s not quite enough mature insight to make it a satisfying watch for adults either. The movie’s visual pleasures and idiosyncrasies may make for lively animation, but as a narrative film, “Virus Tropical” feels more like a sketch.