Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles

Here in America, we're used to animated movies about toys, animals, princesses, dragons, and so on. In Spain, the subjects can be more ambitious. Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, for example, is about surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel and his efforts to make Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan, a documentary about an impoverished Spanish village. Not exactly kiddie fare, that's for sure. Tackling such unconventional material via 2-D hand-drawn animation is what sets the picture apart, though. Nothing else quite like it exists.

As the movie begins, Buñuel has just released his notorious Un Chien Andalou to great controversy. He wants to make something new. Fortunately, his friend, the painter and anarchist Ramon Acin, wins the lottery and decides to invest. They travel to a disease-ridden remote village whose residents are beyond poor. No one seems to understand what Buñuel is doing, except for him. Much of his footage features cruelty to animals: pulling a rooster's head off, throwing a goat off a cliff, tying up a donkey and smashing a beehive right next to it. Such harsh acts are somewhat offset by Buñuel's increasing fondness for the people in the village, particularly the children. He begins to develop some artistic growth by witnessing their plight.

The animation in Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is lovingly detailed. You can feel the care that has gone into it. Sadly, too few movies are made like this anymore; CGI animation has largely overtaken the more traditional form. Although the CGI variety is often impressive, a certain charm is lost. You get that charm here, which draws you into the story.

Actual clips from Tierra Sin Pan are interspersed throughout, and several dream sequences occur. These elements combine to give the movie a suitably surreal vibe of its own. Buñuel's quest to complete the project starts to seem like one of his films. Best of all, director Salvador Simo doesn't shy away from the edgier aspects of his central figure. Luis Buñuel is neither sanctified nor demonized. Instead, he's presented as a complicated artist driven by a vision he has to see realized.

An animated feature that runs 75 minutes (without end credits) obviously can't go as deep as a live-action drama running the normal two hours. You don't necessarily gain any new or earthshaking insights into Luis Buñuel. What you do get is an entertaining, beautiful-to-look-at celebration of a filmmaker who played by his own rules and always tried to expand his professional horizons.

out of four

Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is unrated, but contains language and footage of animals being injured. The running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes.