Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles ★★★

It’s a truth so universally acknowledged that it seldom bears repeating: America sees animation as a genre, while the rest of the world recognizes it as an art form unto itself. Here, it’s just for kids, and most of the movies that Hollywood makes with it are about ice princesses or angry birds or plastic sporks gripped by existential crises. Beyond our borders, however, animation can be for anyone, and tell stories about anything. One look at something from Studio Ghibli or Cartoon Saloon is enough to appreciate how much we lose by treating “cartoons” as a lesser form of cinema that chiefly exists to placate young children; a massive animation department wasting its talents on the likes of “Wonder Park” is like someone buying a Ferrari just to drive around a golf course.

But, every once in a while, a foreign director makes a work of feature-length animation so far beyond the bounds of what American viewers have been conditioned to expect from such things that it can’t help but add insult to injury. Enter: Salvador Simó’s “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles,” an animated film about the making of “Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread),” Luis Buñuel’s scathing 1933 satire of the era’s naïve ethnographic documentaries.

Leveraging one of Buñuel’s least famous (but most pivotal) works into a warm story of artistic maturation — albeit one that’s shadowed by the Franco regime and the specter of death — Simó uses animation to smear the line between dreams and reality; to bridge the gap between the precociousness of Buñuel’s surrealism and the power of his social critiques. For all of its heady ideas, some of which it explores to greater effect than others, “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” is most striking for how it illustrates that animation isn’t a mere subcategory of cinema. That movies have always been a unique medium for how they see reality and unreality as two overlapping roads towards the same truth.

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