Pol (Oriol Pla) is an emotionally stunted loner, trying to make it through high school. He lives with his brother, Llorenc (Javier Beltran), a police officer who watches him day and night, and he spends the rest of his free time hanging out with two friends, Mark (Dimitri Leonidas) and Laia (Roser Tapias). Mark has a strong disdain for authority, and is acutely aware of Laia's crush on Pol...and Pol's crush on a new student named Ikari (Augustus Prew). Pol's true secret, however, is that he is still closest to Deerhoof, a teddy bear from his childhood which comes to life in his imagination. Llorenc views Pol's ongoing friendship with Deerhoof as a persistent childhood fantasy that Pol needs to get over, but his younger brother's attachment to the bear runs deeper than he knows.
Animals is a frustrating film, packed to the brim with symbolism that director Marcal Fores has trouble stringing into a cohesive story. Watching the trailer, the film looks like a bizarre dark fantasy which has no boundaries, pitching Pol's emotional growth as the start of a rift between himself and the bear that turns bloody, but the actual movie is far more contained, trying to string together important bits of subtext into a portrait of teen angst. At times, the film touches on feelings that young people, especially gay teens, may find incredibly familiar, but Fores complicates his movie with too many subplots and additional ideas to explore, resulting in a murk that prevents the film from having much of a point.
Pol is an art student, so right off the bat, Fores starts dropping in artwork and artists for the viewer to unpack in relation to Pol (at the end of the film, there's a page of credits for art pieces right before the list of songs used in the film). In a class, Pol's teacher (Martin Freeman) discusses Goya's "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters", asking about the animals surrounding the painter. "Maybe he just saw the world differently," Ikari suggests. "Then we'd have to start questioning everything," Freeman replies. Fores practically begs the viewer to ask what Pol's bear friend represents -- his repressed homosexuality? his inability to mature? -- but also seems totally uninterested in providing a consistent answer.
Simultaneously, the film starts juggling a number of subplots, many of which don't seem to have much purpose or meaning at all. Although it's clear that Clara (Maria Rodriguez Soto), a young girl who goes missing and whose car is found in the local lake, is some sort of spiritual companion to Pol, their emotional kinship is still vague -- the two characters arrive at a similar destination, but are we supposed to infer their journey there was the same, and in what way? Furthermore, as a result of events in Clara's story, the climax of Mark's story occurs, which feels like an excuse to do something wild in order for the film to have a backdrop for part of the ending.
The best material in the film is Pol's complicated, uncertain sexual awakening, in which he tries to weigh and understand his feelings for Ikari compared to his feelings (or lack of them) for Laia. As most of this material occurs during a stretch of the film where Deerhoof is hardly around, the film unintentionally highlights how little the fantasy sequences add to the film on an emotional level. Sure, an eerie talking teddy bear (impressive effects work aside) may make the movie memorable, but not necessarily better. Fores also turns Ikari into an equally troubled person, without having time to fully explore his problems. Although the film is compassionate toward Pol, Ikari's character comes off oddly sinister, in a way Fores probably does not intend. Coupled with an ending that doesn't seem to serve much purpose, Animals is a film that suggests plenty but says little, using fantasy as an easy out after asking some tough questions.
Artsploitation goes all out for Animals, offering the disc with a reversible cover. One side (the default, displayed when the disc is sealed) depicts Pol and Deerhoof walking through the woods at night, while the reverse is simply a close-up of Deerhoof. Both are nicely done. The back cover (identical on both sides) is a little crowded, with an excess of pictures, but all in all, this is a very eye-catching package. The disc comes in a transparent Amaray case allowing the reverse art to show through on the inside, and there is a 12-page booklet inside the case featuring an exclusive interview with Fores.
The Video and Audio
Tragically, this 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is extremely underwhelming. Somewhere along the line, this transfer has been robbed of detail and dimension thanks to poor contrast and compression issues -- the picture, even in daylight, is murky, with gray shadows rather than true black, and a flat, smeary image that never approaches crispness. Colors appear decent, although they may be overly affected by the environment -- in low-light, for instance, often takes on a greenish hue in the shadows. Throughout the film, from beginning to end, artifacting is visible upon inspection, even on well-lit surfaces, and sometimes this blocking is replaced by banding. The film is presented adequately enough that it's clear this is a DVD and not, say, a faltering online stream of the film, but it probably could and definitely should look much, much better.
Dolby Digital 5.1 is an improvement on the picture, although not exactly perfect. There is a slight muffled and flat quality to the sound that suggests this is not as crisp or vibrant as the dialogue and music ought to be, but at least the sound is properly separated and does surround the viewer decently. A scene of chaos at the school near the end seems like it should provide more spectacle than it does. The one major point in Artsploitation's favor here is the inclusion of two English subtitle tracks, for the Catalan dialogue and for all the dialogue, a distinction too often ignored on foreign films in multiple languages. That said, the tracks do feature a number of minor spelling errors, mainly punctuation ("you're" is consistently "your'e").
In terms of Animals itself, there are two major extras. The first is a audio commentary with director Marcal Fores. Fores and the track's moderator launch into a very conversational chat about Fores' experience of making the film. Although this leads to the track feeling a bit unfocused, leaping from topic to topic on the whim of the participants, the track is also very lively, never letting up. The one major downside is the low quality of the recording, which is very rough and filled with background noise from the location where it was recorded. This is followed by "The Making of Animals" (18:11), which provides a more bite-sized overview of the production, with Pla, Freeman, and many of the other cast and crew members available to add their two cents on the production.
The other two extra features on the disc are short films. The first is the one that inspired the feature, also titled "Animals" (11:12). Nearly silent, this version features Fores himself as protagonist (and perhaps also co-star -- no acting credits are present but it looks like Fores again, wearing glasses). The premise and dialogue are both repeated in the finished film.. The second, "The Bear Truth" (6:51), was produced specifically as a lead-in to Animals at an LGBT film festival. This light-hearted short chats with several people about their favorite stuffed animals, but with a twist that makes it feel like a cousin to the feature.
Trailers for Clip, Vanishing Waves, Hemel, and Toad Road are available under the special features menu. An original theatrical trailer for Animals is also included.
Although much of the movie shows promise, Animals didn't quite land for me. Fores' film is full of ideas and themes he's excited to explore, but no particular purpose emerges as the film draws to a close. Coupled with the poor presentation, this disc warrants a skip it rating.
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