Of the nominations for Best Animated Film at this year’s Academy Awards, Onward, Over the Moon, Shaun The Sheep: Farmageddon, Soul, and Wolfwalkers, not a single one of them was made for anything but family audiences in mind. It’s a pretty common practice in the west for animation to be considered a “kids thing,” with adult animation often hailed by “serious critics” as either immature vehicles for fart humor (Family Guy, South Park) or bold, innovative twists on the genre (Anomalisa, Persepolis). In reality, animation in many other cultures can be anything and everything, not constrained by the mechanics of age or gender demographics. For as many cute and kid-friendly animes I have watched, there have been an equal amount of demented, mature programming that shares many of the same airwaves in Japan. It doesn’t matter what animation covers, but how it covers it. Which makes something like The Spine of Night so fascinating; not that it’s an ultra-violent, nihilistic story of betrayal, but how it utilizes its unique animation style to tell a story that simply wouldn’t have worked any other way, for better or for worse.
Tzod (Lucy Lawless), a witch of great renown, has traveled a great distance up a treacherous mountain after witnessing an era of death and destruction at the hands of Ghal-Sur (Jordan Douglas Smith), who betrayed her in a time of weakness to steal her powerful garment forged from the fibers and seeds of a powerful and corrupting plant. Succumbing to the temptation of evil, Ghal-Sur sends the surrounding kingdom into an era of ruin and suffering, and, at the end of her rope, Tzod recounts the tale to The Guardian (Richard E. Grant) in exchange for wisdom in defeating this evil force.
If The Spine of Night sounds a little inaccessible from the outside, it’s because it is. Like many other high fantasy titles of its ilk, it can be difficult to successfully infiltrate in a single watch. This is an expansive, ugly world that’s hard to find appealing, but one that has an admirable amount of depth once you give into the intricacies of its weaving narrative. Because of this, some supporting storylines, particularly one involving Phae-Agura (Betty Gabriel), who attempts to stop the rise of Ghal-Sur from the inside, are cast to the wayside and are haphazardly resolved before you can even appreciate them for what they’re worth.
The most stunning element of The Spine of Night is easily its hand-drawn rotoscope animation, which provides an uncanny, but effective viewing experience. There’s a vintage quality to the animation which gives a slightly off-putting vibe to the entire thing, which ends up working to the film’s advantage as viewers discover that you’re supposed to be feeling immensely uncomfortable with the entire thing. It’s all a little ugly, but nothing about this film is meant to be pretty. It’s truly unlike any animation I have seen (at least done purposefully) in the modern age, and it’s a marvel of craft from directors Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King.
There’s something about The Spine of Night that gives off the vibe of an immensely controversial Sega Genesis RPG (role playing game) from the ‘90s that would’ve ended up influencing the creation of the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board). That game doesn’t exist, but I would play the fuck out of it if it did. The overly grotesque level of violence and casual nudity (never exploitative) really screams of an age where traditionally “family” forms of art like animation and video games were screaming to be taken seriously, and, then in their screaming, created games such as Mortal Kombat that took the “adult content” to the next level. It’s all stylized and dense enough to fit that mold, and I respect it heavily for that.
If high fantasy, unique animation, and ultraviolence is your thing, I can’t imagine you walking away from The Spine of Night without having fun. It’s particularly inaccessible to casual viewers, and sometimes wasn’t exactly my cup of tea just in a general sense, but there’s so much to marvel at that went into the film that’s impossible to ignore. Its fabulously hand-drawn rotoscope animation gives the film an eerie, unnatural air that’s hard to shake, which builds a palpable, punishing atmosphere. It’s dense as hell, with a world begging to be explored further (however that may be…I’m telling you, a 16-bit RPG of this would *slap*), but with a little focus, an empty stomach, and a taste for something different, its unique benefits outweigh its sometimes impenetrable downsides.
Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 18th, 2021.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.