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Reviews: ‘Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles’ and Rob Paulsen’s ‘Voice Lessons’

The Misweant writes about a different labyrinth and definitely not those ‘Turtles;’ plus, with apologies to Rocket J. Squirrel, ‘that voice… where have I heard that voice?’

Editor’s note: Joe Strike, AWN’s resident Miscweant, shares his combined review: Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles and Rob Paulsen’s autobiography, “Voice Lessons.”

In 1930, Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or (co-written with the artist Salvador Dali), with its attacks on bourgeois society and the Roman Catholic church, sparked riots and led to Buñuel’s banishment from French filmmaking.

What would the surrealist filmmaker do for an encore? His decision: visit a remote, impoverished corner of Spain to produce a semi-pseudo documentary eventually titled Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan. (“Land Without Bread”)

In 2016 Spanish director Salvador Simó attempted an equally ambitious project: creating an animated feature documenting Buñuel’s chaotic but ultimately successful feat of filmmaking. Simó’s 2018 film Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles deftly combines animated scenes of the filmmaker and his crew shooting the film with live-action footage from the actual movie, intercutting the two in near-perfect continuity. Rather than glossing over conflicts between Buñuel, his friends and associates, Simó makes them a fundamental part of the story, as with his troubled relationship with his father and the nightmares that may have haunted him as he attempted to bring his vision to life. (The title of Simó’s film comes from one character’s observation that that clustered roofs of Las Hurdes’ primitive homes resemble turtle shells.)

Simó’s dedication to his film sparked a much friendlier dream: “I was so engrossed in the story that one night I even dreamt that I was having a coffee at a terrace bar with none other than Buñuel himself and spoke to him about the film.”

At the very least a massive feat of international financing and co-production, Labyrinth of the Turtles begins with a cavalcade of more than a dozen production and distribution entities’ logos. The narrative proper begins as Buñuel and his artist friends discuss the role of Art in society: should it try to enlighten its audience or simply allow the artist to express himself? (One of them cautions against art becoming “the bread and circuses of capitalism.”) The film’s gentle color palette and the supple, thin-lined character designs again demonstrate the almost-forgotten pleasure of watching 2D animation on the large screen.

An early scene shows Buñuel as a child putting on an impressive, monster-filled shadow puppet “magic lantern” show for his friends, presumably an actual incident from his childhood. (Even if apocryphal, the scene is a lovely hat-tip to one of the earliest pre-film forms of animation.)

While we’re on the subject of film financing, Buñuel was able to film Las Hurdes thanks to a promise made by his friend, the sculptor Ramón Acín, who told Buñuel he would finance the filmmaker’s next film if the sculptor won an upcoming lottery. To everyone’s surprise, he did -- and he did. (His reward: becoming the film’s producer and being driven endlessly mad by Buñuel’s capricious decisions and profligate spending.)

Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is far from a hagiography though; he’s shown deliberately shooting goats and a donkey to include in the film for obscure reasons; at one point in the midst of filming he dons a nun’s habit, unaware of (or perhaps deliberately provoking) the outraged reaction of the deeply devout villagers. (“I’m a victim of religious persecution,” he tongue-in-cheek protests.)

While the spirit of Death makes several appearances in the film as a bizarre mocking figure, the true ghost haunting the film is Buñuel’s one-time friend and collaborator, the surrealist artist Salvador Dali. After their initial and highly successful collaboration on the legendary surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, the self-aggrandizing Dali went his own way after cowriting L’Age d’Or, leaving Buñuel struggling in the scandal’s aftermath. Daliesque imagery suffuses several of the film’s dream sequences, from a parade of elephants walking on frighteningly tall, spindly legs (from Dali’s painting Los Elefantes), to a profusion of staring, floating eyes (a Dali motif he shared with Alfred Hitchcock in Spellbound) and even a dream where Dali and Buñuel’s domineering father become one.

Labyrinth ends as the Spanish fascist movement takes over the country leading to a tragic denouement, something unlikely to end an American-made animated feature. Non-U.S. studios and creators know the medium’s power to tell stories far beyond the merchandising-friendly, kid-oriented CGI movies that dominate contemporary mainstream American animation.

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Rob Paulsen is one of today’s best-known voice talents, bringing to life everyone from the Brain’s dimwitted pal Pinky to Animaniacs’ Yakko, the Ninja Turtles’ Raphael and literally scores of others. What might not be as well-known, however, is his battle with and triumph over throat cancer.

His memoir “Voice Lessons” (due out in October from Viva Editions) recounts his rise to the top of the animation heap, with no shortage of behind-the-scenes anecdotes of what life is like inside and outside the recording booth. His description of undergoing treatment for his disease is downright harrowing and a yes, inspiring story of facing up and looking at a life-threatening challenge right in the eye. Anyone who wants to know what life is like as a Hollywood voice actor owes it to themselves to pick up a copy of “Voice Lessons.” (Full disclosure: Paulsen’s book was published by Viva Editions, who were kind enough to send me a review copy; Viva is a division of the same company that owns Cleis Press, the publisher of my own “Furry Nation.”)

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.