Review by Sean Boelman
Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King’s animated fantasy-horror film The Spine of Night is perhaps the most epic independent production ever made. Beautifully and painstakingly animated, the movie suffers some narrative shortcomings but is an entertaining and awe-inspiring treat nevertheless.
The film follows generations of heroes as they fight against a common evil that lasts through the ages. It’s the type of intimate but grand in scale animated fare that will remind viewers of some of the classics of the genre, like Akira, and while it doesn’t hit all of the ambitious targets it sets for itself, it is at least fascinating as an exercise in experimentation.
Like so many movies in the fantasy genre, the film is about a battle between good and evil, but the reason that this theme has such longevity is that it still resonates. What specific societal evil the movie is addressing changes a few times, and could use a bit more focus, but Gelatt and King offer some interesting metaphors.
If there is one clear sign of the film’s success, it is that audiences will be wishing that they had the opportunity to stay in this world for longer. Gelatt and King have built a world that is truly immersive and has so much room for growth. A mere ninety minutes doesn’t do justice for the talents they have in world-building.
Admittedly, a lot of the characters are very archetypal, but that comes with the episodic structure of the narrative. For the most part, there isn’t much time to develop them beyond their core heroic principles, but the filmmakers are still able to get the audience to identify with the characters in the necessary ways.
There is a pretty massive voice cast in this movie, and while none of the roles are especially large, each player adds their own touch to the film. Most memorable are Lucy Lawless and Betty Gabriel, who play two kickass heroines, but Patton Oswalt, Richard E. Grant, and Joe Manganiello all turn up at points throughout the story.
Of course, the main reason to pay attention to this movie is its technical achievement. The film is hand-rotoscoped, and every single frame of it looks absolutely gorgeous. From the intricately-crafted settings to the emotive characters, it is obvious that this movie was a labor of love, and it’s all the better for it.
The Spine of Night heavily benefits from the evident level of passion that went into it from everyone involved. The act of creating this film in and of itself is impressive, and the fact that it works so well is even more so.
The Spine of Night is screening as a part of the online edition of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival, which runs March 16-20, 2021.