Directors often workshop their films in several, constantly evolving formats. Years before becoming the youngest Best Director winner at the 2017 Academy Awards, Damien Chazelle was a young filmmaker with a screenplay about an abusive music teacher. To obtain funding to realize it, he created the short film “Whiplash” as proof-of-concept. When the short premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival to great acclaim, its success paved the way for the feature-length Whiplash, which earned Oscars including an award for returning actor J.K. Simmons. As the scope of his undertakings expanded, Chazelle gradually honed his project to its purest, most effective form.
Cinema can act a means of refining work stemming from another visual medium. A case in point is the director, illustrator, and cartoonist Alberto Vázquez’s Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, screening at Quad Cinema starting December 15. His graphic novel Psiconautas yielded the short film Birdboy, which in turn was adapted into the aforementioned feature. Just like Chazelle’s various versions of Whiplash, the scope of the project expanded with each iteration. With each, Vázquez improves his concept by plucking visual elements from his comic and dropping them into a visual realm steeped in cinematic tradition.
The realm of Birdboy is a post-cataclysmic world where anthropomorphic animals struggle to continue daily life. As a young mouse named Dinki and her friends try to flee their island home, the narrative wanders toward the story of Dinki’s former lover Birdboy, who is hunted by the police as an alleged drug dealer. Several other stories — featuring pigs, dogs, rabbits, and other animals — intersect and overlap in deft, seamless ways that would make filmmakers of interlocking stories like Robert Altman jealous.
The hand-drawn feature adds color to character designs from Vázquez’s black and white graphic novel. The artist cites Art Spiegelman’s landmark graphic novel Maus as an inspiration, and that influence is most apparent in these designs. Just as Spiegelman used species to designate ethnicity, Vázquez uses different animals to represent different social groups; dogs are police, rats are criminal scavengers, and so on. The visual idiosyncrasies of individual characters also translate faithfully from static to motion, with Birdboy maintaining his owlish face and Dinki sporting a similar charm bracelet around one ear in both versions. These visual signifiers from the comic wordlessly communicate characters’ personalities, and Vázquez wisely embraces this technique for the film.
However, the graphic novel’s art does a disservice to the story. Although concise character designs make an impact, the backgrounds are often stark and unimaginative. Rubble and cracked infrastructure suggest the dystopian environment, but the lack of detail makes the setting feel less lived-in and concrete. As a result, the reader is never truly immersed in the world of Psiconauts and might disengage from the story.
In adapting his work to film, Vázquez remedies this flaw with a cinematic visual arsenal. While the short film offered cursory elaborations on the setting, the feature embraces the conventions of German Expressionism to achieve a fully realized gothic hellscape. Cityscapes are populated with dark structures rendered in sharp angles, standing in stark contrast to the unimaginative doodles that represent buildings in the graphic novel. The movement is also known for shadowy compositions, which Birdboy offers in spades. Inner demons are black, shape-shifting blotches that cut across the screen and deep into the psyches of those that they torment. Madness and internal conflict were thematic hallmarks of German Expressionism, and employing its visual language allows the mise-en-scène to reinforce Birdboy’s interest in both subjects.
When adult themes like these are explored through the traditionally juvenile device of talking animals, a storyteller performs a difficult balancing act between reality and fantasy. On the page, the saga of Birdboy, Dinki, and friends teeters as it crosses this tightrope. It simply needed a stronger, more fully developed visual language to maintain perfect balance. With Birdboy, the techniques and tools of cinema allow Vázquez to realize the strongest possible version of a story adapted many times.
Birdboy opens Friday, December 15 at Quad Cinema (34 West 13th Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan).