“For anyone with an interest in the life of Bunuel or the European surrealists of the early 20th century.”
As a medium where almost anything can be depicted, animation seems like the perfect tool for surrealism, and as such has been utilised by filmmakers ranging from David Lynch to Hayao Miyazaki. Luis Bunuel, despite the wide range of his work, tends to be associated with live-action cinema through films like Un Chien Andalou and The Phantom Of Liberty, leaving us to wonder what his directorial voice might look like when filtered through an animated lens. While the semi-biopic Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles obviously couldn’t receive the subject’s own creative input, the potential for some truly dazzling imagery goes somewhat unfulfilled within what is otherwise an interesting movie.
Focusing on the period following the religious controversy surrounding Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or, Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is concerned with the political importance of art, and whether artists have an obligation to use their platforms responsibly. By homing in on a turbulent time in both Bunuel and Spain’s history on the precipice of the Spanish Civil War, the film is able to give a sense of moral urgency on a personal as well as social level. For instance, flashbacks to Bunuel’s childhood are effectively sprinkled into his filming of the poverty-stricken Las Hurdas region, creating a parallel between personal and physical struggle. This inner conflict is even achieved by placing Bunuel in opposition to his former friend and collaborator Salvador Dali, who was notoriously unwilling to denounce fascism where Bunuel and his contemporaries were determined to.
These themes are the strongest and most intriguing element of Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, and aren’t quite matched in quality by the animation, which while serviceable doesn’t quite capture the essence of Bunuel as I imagine director Salvador Simo intended. The sepia colour palette and simple yet fluid character designs, reminiscent of that in Chico and Rita, is all well and good for grounded scenes that take place solely in reality, but less so for the dream sequences throughout, which are less impressive than confusing. I understand that elaborate animated spectacles aren’t always possible as they potentially require resources beyond the budget or capabilities of the filmmakers, but even a simple change to the colour palette during these moments could have gone a long way in creating the unreality that Bunuel himself was so brilliant at conveying.
Other reviewers and audience members have noted this, but I feel a responsibility to mention the graphic and largely unnecessary scenes of animal abuse that take place in Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, as they both alienate a large portion of viewers and undercut some of the themes of the film. Using animated depictions alone would have been tolerable, especially as the film is attempting to accurately depict the creation of Bunuel’s pseudo-documentary Land Without Bread, but including the actual film clips of farm animals being brutally slaughtered felt grossly unnecessary. Not only that, but Bunuel’s enthusiasm in the film to kill these creatures is placed next to scenes of him comforting a dying girl and recording the poverty of the villagers, complicating his character arc to the extent that it makes far less sense – is he empathetic or not?
For anyone with an interest in the life of Bunuel or the European surrealists of the early 20th century, I would recommend Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles to a degree. For people who just want to watch an animated film geared towards adults, I’d point them towards many other movies before this one.