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The live-action children’s film has been dying a slow death for years now, hastened in the past two decades by the proliferation and increased popularity of computer-generated animation. In the second half of the 20th century, though, a lot of family entertainment featured flesh-and-blood actors in oddball situations. This is true of many Disney movies, including oddities like the 1959 Sean Connery-starring leprechaun drama Darby O’Gill and the Little People, and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, a 1969 comedy featuring a teenage Kurt Russell. The studio now focuses on animation to such an extreme that a large portion of its upcoming live-action offerings (like the recent Beauty and the Beast remake) will be based on successful animated Disney films of times passed.
Andrés Waissbluth’s Un caballo llamado Elefante (“Elephant, the Horse”) — playing at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) as part of the Latin American Cinema: The State of the Art series — is a charming reversal of this trend toward animation. The film deals with two young Chilean brothers’ adventure with their recently deceased grandfather’s prized horse named Elephant. After the horse ingests the grandfather’s golden heirloom watch, the boys follow him, waiting for it to be expelled on a path that ends at a circus. The film might be the first since Pulp Fiction to devote significant screen time to the problem of a gold watch hiding inside a living being.
Much like in Tarantino’s work, Waissbluth employs a pastiche aesthetic, though the Chilean director pulls from different influences than his American counterpart. The first scene involves the boys — Lalo the elder and Roberto the younger — staging an Old West shootout; here, we get the cinematic grammar of the Hollywood Western but with children and their toy guns. The film’s circus setting brings to mind the clown-obsessed Italian auteur Federico Fellini, and the reminiscent whimsy of the children’s journey calls to mind Amarcord, his Academy Award-winning masterpiece of nostalgia for childhood.
The majority of the film delightfully uses live action to tell a children’s fantasy story, though short animated sections convey the plot line of a Western comic that Roberto reads after finding it amid his grandfather’s belongings. The comic tells the tale of a horse named Elephant and his owner, who bears a striking resemblance to the brothers’ grandfather. Pen and ink drawings — stippled to duplicate antique comics’ Benday dot coloring — detail the heroes’ clashes with evildoers while performing at a circus. These widescreen, hand-drawn images are framed tableaus with very simple movement. The sequences opt instead to use visual shorthand for movement, like “speed lines” from comic books that indicate direction of movement.
Comic books are responsible for one of the film’s best visual flourishes, drawn from the concept of “the gutter,” which, in most comic books, is the blank border linking images in a sequence. This element — usually white — pulls together disparate images in a way that unites them in meaning. Waissbluth smartly uses a similar technique here. When Roberto begins reading a comic book story, a gutter-like white border surrounds the photographed image as we transition to animation. The film then transitions to live action, ensconced by white as the animated segment ends. The events of the film very clearly start reflecting those in Roberto’s comic book, and this device links the two accounts visually. The director’s gift for pastiche extends to his propensity for appropriation.
Subtlety, however, is not a part of Waissbluth’s filmmaking skill set. His script — written with Miguel Ángel Labarca and Daniel Laguna — bludgeons the viewer over the head with the same exposition again and again as if worried that anyone watching has a sieve-like short-term memory. The confluence between the boys’ story and the comic’s is often clumsily noted in the dialogue. The film also talks down to audiences with cliché-riddled lines like, “Grandpa asked us to set Elephant free. But it was him who set us free.”
Despite the screenplay’s repetition, Elephant, the Horse is a standout in the lately inactive world of live action’s children films. By prominently focusing some of those compositions on a horse’s bowel movements, the filmmakers give any reviewer an easy opportunity to refer to these images when colorfully describing the film’s quality. Luckily, Waissbluth’s skill as a visual storyteller helps the film avoid that moniker.