Reviews Short Narrative

Strays (2020) – 2.5 stars

Director: Dobrawa Hopaluk

Writer: Dobrawa Hopaluk

Sound: Gabriel De Piero

Running time: 4mins

As I have said before in my reviews with Indy Film Library, I don’t think there is a filmmaking medium that is harder to break into than animation. The advent of the internet served to allow a brief golden age in amateur animation, where as long as you were inventive and funny enough, anyone could gain a mass audience – however the glut of output, combined with the increasing twitchiness of advertisers over content they cannot control means that genie is now firmly back in the bottle.

If you want to make a name for yourself as an animator and filmmaker, you either need to grind your way through an established studio – and whatever the size of the company, that is no mean feat – or to create something so insanely creative, eye-catchingly presented and thematically intriguing that it can still make use of word-of-mouth to go viral against all the odds. On the face of it, people’s affinity with their pets, and the emotional impact of imagining them in a difficult or perilous position is one tried and tested way of still managing to do that.

John Cody Kim’s Steadfast Stanley, for example, has accrued tens of millions of views across its various web-listings, managing to capture the imagination of audiences by centring on a chubby corgi’s battle to reunite with his young owner amid a zombie apocalypse. It had heart; wit and charm in spades – as well as beautifully polished animation, and distinctive characterisation which could help carry audiences along with the action.

At first it might feel unfair to compare Dobrawa Hopaluk’s short Strays to such a film – and it is a long way from being that complete ticket – but there are some signs here that she has what it takes to go on and emulate such films in the future, especially for a first-time filmmaker. For a start, Hopaluk similarly seems to understand the emotional potential of inserting man’s best friend into a nightmarish dystopia, placing a group of feral mutts in the midst of a run-down and deserted London.

The film never makes a point of addressing where the city’s human inhabitants have gone. While this might simply be a stylistic choice to keep the audience’s eyes from being drawn away from our central characters, it does have the effect of making it feel as though when things turn dark, these dogs have no chance of receiving benevolent support from outside influences – if they are to survive, it will be on their own terms. As a result, when our gang of loveable puppies are attacked by older strays, who steal their food, the situation seems both sad and hopeless.

Gabriel De Piero’s sound design has to take a great deal of credit for the emotional clout of this – moments of bounding chords and happy barking are suddenly brought to an end by snarling dogs accompanied by a growling synth score. De Piero’s work does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of spelling out the plot itself in this way – helping to highlight the important milestones in the characters’ arcs, as they move from scared puppies, to traumatised adolescents, to a determined pack of adults, who might not be stronger than their tormentors individually, but have the strength of numbers on their side.

It is a pretty standard plot, and another thing that will help fill in any holes in just how familiar even young viewers with be with it. Being stronger together has been a central feature in everything from Rise of the Planet of the Apes to A Bug’s Life, after all. The thing is, if Strays were unable to fall back on the crutches of its soundtrack, and the assumptions audiences should be able to draw from recognising its “Ape together strong” story, then the chances are its animation and character design would leave us more than a little lost.

As noted with Lucy Guy’s short Muffin Goes Clubbing, when trying to break into film festivals with an animated film, you will have to compete with thousands of well-crafted – if not always especially imaginative – films from animation sweatshops all over the world. It is not impossible to compete on that basis, provided your film features a gripping and innovative narrative, beautifully finished art, or ideally both. In Guy’s case, the while the characters of the Muffin universe were well composed, they were animated in such a juddering, half-baked way, that the simplicity of the plot could not be overlooked.

In the case of Hopaluk’s Strays, there are problems both in how the characters are presented, and how they are brought to life. First of all, the dogs themselves are not distinct enough – and aside from one having a distinct red scar from being attacked as a puppy, the rest of the pack are all much of a muchness. This is particularly problematic when trying to portray another dog as a villain – his black, blocky body is almost indistinguishable from our heroes, and we can often only tell who he is by where he is positioned in relation to the dog with the scar.

There is something to be supported in the film’s visual style, which could be taken forward to future projects. With its cubist lines and bright background colours bringing Picasso to mind, but without a clearer definition between characters, this doesn’t count for much. At the same time, the animation is occasionally smooth, but far more often it is insufferably choppy, to the extent that at times I had to check that the internet was still buffering my screening copy properly.

While there are great examples of how having a lower frame-rate can work wonders for an animation – for example Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse – this does not come across as stylised so much as unfinished. This is also pretty poorly suited to the scenes of conflict between the sets of indistinctive hounds – which quickly descend into a chaotic blur as a result.

Overall grade: 2.5 stars

All in all, Strays is a solid initial effort for a fledgling filmmaker; it might not pull up any trees in terms of narrative innovation, but its setting, choice of central characters and soundtrack still render it an effective piece of film. What Hopaluk really needs to focus on in future productions is that the character design and quality of animated movement will be distinct and clean enough to help – rather than hinder – the creation of a relatable story which encourages its viewers to share it with their friends and family.

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