That animation is an art form not exclusive to children's films has become lost among the barrage of producers, distributors and marketers intent on single-handedly corner it as synonymous with Walt Disney and weekend matinees. While it's true that recent efforts from the major American studios have repositioned animation as more of a family medium working for kids as well as for grown-ups, films aimed squarely at older audiences have a harder time breaking through and are becoming rare birds. So all the more power to Spanish director Ignacio Ferreras for taking a risk on a seriously mature work: the film adaptation of illustrator Paco Roca's award-winning graphic novel about seniors living in a retirement home, following retired bank manager Emilio (voiced by Tacho González) as he's placed in care by a son who can no longer take care of him and learns to navigate both his new surroundings and the indignities of old age.

     It's often said that as they grow older seniors become closer to children - in essence, Arrugas is a sort of traditional high-school coming-of-age movie shifted to old age, with its characters learning to cope with the next stage of their lives and the new rules of the society they're moving into. But there's added poignancy in the fact that, unlike in high-school movies, the future is not there for the taking; the approach of death may be a disturbing enough theme for a film, but for Emilio death is not so much the matter as it is his realisation that he suffers from Alzheimer's disease and is confronted with his future self in the shape of Modesto, one of the patients in the facility who is patiently and lovingly cared for by his wife Dolores but seems to have no idea of where he is or even who he is. Emilio's disorientation, as well as his proud refusal to admit the true extent of his illness, is juxtaposed to his roommate Miguel (voiced by Álvaro Guevara), a former immigrant in Argentina who has no family and, retaining most of his health and wits, refuses to acknowledge his weaknesses while taking sheepish financial advantage from some of the others.

     Their push-and-pull relationship, blossoming into true friendship as both realise the inexorability of Alzheimer, forms the backbone of the episodic plot, but also reveals its limits; Arrugas works best when it's not trying to tell a narrative but rather articulate the emotions going through Emilio's head, his confusion between reality and memory a perfect showcase for the oneiric possibilities of animation. To their credit, neither Mr. Ferreras nor Mr. Roca (who co-scripted and had an active role in the production) shirk the tougher aspects of the situation nor sugarcoat the pill; and the way the film sketches most of its characters through action and behaviour rather than through narrative or dialogue exposition is attentive and lovely. But the need to give Arrugas a narrative structure ends up forcing a couple of predictable narrative choices that sell the theme short. Worst of all, while the traditional, hand-drawn animation is highly in tune with Mr. Roca's work and style, the general quality of the production seems to be more in line with the limited nature and flat visuals of television animation than with the visual polish and richness of detail you expect from a big-screen effort, especially when there's a real sensibility both for the general theme and for the background work.

     None of this detracts from the moving, judicious poignancy of the film, its refreshing lucidity and lack of sentimentality or morality (despite the occasional slip from Nani García's score); it's just a shame that Arrugas had everything going for itself, but doesn't really make the most of it.

Voice cast: Tacho González, Álvaro Guevara, Mabel Rivera
Director: Ignacio Ferreras
Animation supervisor: Baltasar Pedrosa
Screenplay: Ángel de la Cruz, Paco Roca, Mr. Ferreras, Rosanna Cecchini, from the graphic novel by Mr. Roca, Arrugas
Cinematography: David Cubero (colour)
Art director: Mr. Roca
Editor: Gemma Gassó
Music: Nani García
Producers: Manuel Cristobal, Enrique Aguirrezabala, Oriol Ivern (Perro Verde Films, The Elephant In The Black Box, Cromosoma and Galician Television)
Spain, 2011, 89 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, May 18th 2013


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