★★★★☆

Winner of the Contrechemp award at last year’s niche Annecy animated film festival, Latvian director Gints Zilbalodis’ feature debut is among the most innovative and enchanting animated films released this year. Away combines Zilbalodis’ signature minimalist style with the structure of a classic survival story.

Compared with the vast conglomerate resources of the Disneys, Pixars and Dreamworks of this world, Away is tiny: as with his earlier work, Zilbalodis directed, wrote, edited, animated and composed the film himself over three years. Yet its imagination and creativity easily outmatch the recent efforts of even the mighty Pixar. For parents weary of the rubber-faced, sneering clatter of your average half-term studio release, Away’s minimalism represents a blessed oasis of calm, while for the kids, its simple style and wordless story represent boundless opportunities for imagination and magic.

A boy wakes up, hanging by a parachute from a tree in the the middle of a great desert. An enormous black monster approaches him, he struggles free before it kills him and it pursues him slowly but relentlessly across the desert. On his journey he befriends an injured bird and finds a motorbike and a map to safety, left by a long dead traveller.

For some, Away will be reminiscent of the video games of the late 1990s and early 2000s when realistic 3D graphics were in their nascency and animation was rudimentary and blocky. But in that nascency was the excitement of potential, the sublimity of the unknown and the epic. Away has something of that in its vast desert setting or the semi-formless spectre that stalks the nameless boy like one of the great beasts in Ueda Fumito’s Shadow of the Colossus. In less talented hands, the boy’s limited animation and basic features would feel lifeless and uncanny, but here they faultlessly conjure empathy. His terror is ours as the bizarre thing chases him through the desert and his grief is acutely felt as we gradually learn how he came to be in the wilderness.

Zilbalodis divides the film into chapters, each representing four distinct, surreal spaces, from the lush wooded glade populated by black cats who worship a geyser, to the oasis where he finds the injured bird. The relationship between the boy and the bird, incidentally, will surely go down down as a future formative moment for future adults seeing the film now as children: a climactic deus ex machina avoids wholesale Bambi territory, but there’s no doubt that Away leaves its emotional mark.

Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm