You wouldn’t mistake the new Spanish animation Buñuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles for a Pixar movie. Not unless your children enjoy seeing heads ripped off live chickens and donkeys getting stung to death by bees. It is a chronicle of Luis Buñuel’s time making his 1933 documentary Las Hurdes, and his struggle to define himself as a film-maker following his split from Salvador Dalí. In terms of Buñuel’s career, the rest is history, but Buñuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles is a reminder of how well-suited animation and surrealism are. They go together like a lobster and a telephone.
Early animators certainly recognised the potential. Around the time Buñuel and Dalí were slicing up eyeballs in Un Chien Andalou, innovators such as Max Fleischer were toying with the reality-warping potential of the medium. Looking at his 1930s Betty Boop cartoons, you can’t believe LSD hadn’t been invented yet. Parallel dream worlds open up, inanimate objects come to life, and the laws of physics are in thrall to the rhythm of the jazz. Surrealism found a safe haven in Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera, and even Disney, who in 1945 collaborated with Dalí himself on an extremely Dalí-esque, animation called Destino (which was not finished until 2003).
After Fantasia, Disney steadily toned down the trippiness in its features (though the Dumbo dream sequence remains a highlight), leaving others to carry the torch, as surrealism morphed into psychedelia. Alongside the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine and Ralph Bakshi’s hippy toons were countless Japanese and European head-trips such as René Laloux’s Fantastic Planet or the Hungarian folk oddity Son of the White Mare. But now the stakes are higher, the weirdness has been pushed out of mainstream Hollywood animation. Bar the odd SpongeBob movie or Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, today’s big-budget computer animations are invariably set in safe, stable realities where up is up and down is down.
Fortunately, small-screen animators are remembering there are no rules to this medium. Witness the lovable Adventure Time, whose free-associative plots and eye-popping colour made it cult viewing, or new hallucinogenic head-trip The Midnight Gospel. Or series such as Rick and Morty and Tuca & Bertie, both gloriously eccentric creations that revel in the same absurd possibilities Fleischer did in the 30s.
Buñuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles is not quite playing that game, but even within its biographical narrative it finds room for dream sequences, hallucinations and live-action footage from Buñuel’s documentary. The treatment complements the story, which is really about Buñuel finding his accommodation between surrealism and reality. Animation is always doing the same, but it could have it so much weirder.