This minimalistic adventure, created single-handedly by Latvian filmmaker Gints Zilbalodis, is a towering artistic achievement
This lovely, moving animated film is a testament to one man’s unbreakable will: it was created, single-handedly, by the Latvian writer, director, and composer Gints Zilbalodis over a three and a half year period, and tells the simple tale of a young man and his motorbike lost in a fantastical landscape, who, trying to make his way home through green fields, across shimmering lakes, and over snowy peaks, is all the time pursued by a shadowy colossus.
Asked why he wanted to climb Everest, the explorer George Mallory famously replied: “Because it's there.” Zilbalodis, who realised partway through that the colossus was a manifestation of his struggle to finish the film, might consider his own stubborn determination to be in line with such a comment. He also admits to making up the whole thing as he went, and as Away's silent protagonist literally moves through stone goalposts in order to reach his destination, the heavily improvisational nature of Zibalodis' creative process is laid bare.
Of course, the lone Zibaldodis can't compete with a studio like Pixar and their knack for detail, but that never feels like the intention. Away is rough around the edges, certainly, complete with a dodgy run animation, and some questionable physics. But the stripped back approach is oddly calming and meditative – a welcomed break from the overhyped antics of American animation. Not a word is spoken, either, yet the minimalist, Philip Glass-esque musical score is all that's required to key us into the mood of this dreamy odyssey.
Away has a lot in common with gentle video games like Journey, which drop the player into wide, open spaces and encourage them to explore at their own pace – more about atmosphere than any coherent notion of story. That's not to say that the film lacks tension: Zibaldodis proves a dab hand at creating memorable, thrilling set-pieces, the best of which involves a rickety bridge, a bird, and a very large boulder.
Elsewhere, quieter moments – animals frolicking in long grass, rain falling against sheets of metal, nights camped out beneath a star-filed sky – feel indebted to the works of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (could the title be a reference to one of the master's greatest films?). Or maybe it was the Studio Ghibli-aligned The Red Turtle – another breathtaking, wordless animated film – that made this one seem possible in Zibaldoris' mind.
Despite being the work of a single man and a shoestring budget, Away moved me to a far greater extent than Pixar's recent $150 million blockbuster Soul, which feels unnecessarily overstuffed and convoluted by comparison. Not to mention this film's rendering of open oceans and huge peaks makes for genuinely cathartic viewing at a time of global lockdown.
There's a good chance this project took everything out of Zilbalodis. I sincerely hope he can muster up the effort to make another. Something tells me he will.
Away is now available to rent on various digital platforms.Where to watch