Cute is the practically mandatory term applied to animated films, especially those involving small animals. In fact, along with interesting, intriguing, and brilliant, cute may well be among the most abused terms in common criticism, no matter what the medium. It is not the word itself I begrudge. I do, however, begrudge the tendency of a critic to rely on a vague, one-word reaction as the sum of one’s thoughts and feelings associated with that work. In short, the word terminates. It terminates the sentence, and more significantly, our capacity to think about, and be moved by, art. I do not wish to discourage our very human tendency to be washed up in admiration and, dare I say, love, for art. The problem comes when we translate those feelings into that infernal word, and do not continue our love through appreciation and discussion. This is why Dony Permedi’s Kiwi! belongs in the realm of analysis. I do not aim to suffocate its charm, but in fact to enhance it, through the normal tools available to a critic: interpretation based upon artistic evidence.
Beneath the surface level charm of Kiwi! lies a great struggle of fate versus free will for our flightless friend, and hence, a great beauty, and great heart. While the eternal question “Do we make the world, or does the world make us?” is not new unto itself, Kiwi! explores the fate-free will struggle in a unique and endearing manner, because it explores that conflict entirely visually. As complicated as the issue itself, the film does not give an answer either way. Through its deliberate ambiguity, it seeks, but does not seek to find, the line between Kiwi’s physical and mental capabilities.
We look first at Permedi’s kiwi design: a creature seemingly fated to its natural destiny. What Permedi first shows us is a character not human, but animal. Pathetic, puny (note how the pines dwarf him) and flightless to boot, Kiwi does not seem a creature suited to action or movement. Without even a boastful size to speak of, Kiwi falls on lower rungs than even the ostrich, emu, or cassowary. His plumage boasts no impressive front; he sports a sickly light brown. He views the world from black and beady eyes. Taken for what he is, or at least as he appears, he is in no way extraordinary, in no way un-natural.
It is through action, the result of an unnatural desire to be more than he is, that Kiwi becomes extraordinary. Permedi gives special attention to Kiwi’s physical movements as a means of establishing his character’s precociousness. The opening shot gives us a close-up of Kiwi’s body straining against a tremendous weight, in aching rhythm: step, strain; step, strain. This is not Nature’s puny flightless bird, but Permedi’s own workhorse. Note our little friend’s duress with each pull, as he summons physical strength from some vessel other than his tiny frame. Make no mistake; this is hard work, be it self-imposed or otherwise. In one moment, having involuntarily released his burden, Kiwi wears an expression of such pathetic exhaustion that one cannot help but sympathize with this clearly burdened bird. Later, when he gazes down the cliff-face, thousands of trees stand testament to the time and pain he has expended. This is no ordinary flightless bird, but one burdened by extremely heavy cargo, both physically and figuratively. The weight of a dream tends to do that.
Given the inherent incongruity of Kiwi’s fate (i.e., doing normal kiwi things), and his own lofty ambitions, Kiwi’s labor falls nothing short of humorous. Take a look at Kiwi’s wide running gait, as he gallops comically in the hopes of expediting his task; or how Kiwi hammers the roots of a tree into the side of the cliff, with nails of course. We laugh as much at the ludicrousness of the job, as at the visual image: Kiwi lies on his back, hammering not with hand but with talon. The humor in Permedi’s film stems exactly from the same conflict that drives the film: the dichotomy between puny bird and herculean undertaking.
Augmenting the fate and free will conflict is the question of the labor’s extrinsic value: Is Kiwi’s hardship worth it? Should he not simply resign himself to his natural fate? Rather than hand us easy answers, Permedi keeps Kiwi’s goal a secret, prolonging the question through a process of disorientation. He only barely hints at Kiwi’s ultimate goal, offering us the pulling of ropes, the hammering of nails, Kiwi’s physical quirks (as always), and the odd images testifying to Kiwi’s labors (in a delightfully bizarre shot, Permedi pauses on a tree nailed to a cliff side, exactly 90 degrees off its natural inclination). Obscuring Kiwi’s ultimate goal prompts our interest not only in the goal itself, but in the question of its value.
Even when Kiwi finally proceeds to perform his swan dive, we still observe his plan with ignorance as to his motives. It’s only when the camera flips itself horizontal, with Kiwi seeming to skim the pines in flight, when we begin to understand that the apparently nonsensical works are driven by a beautiful purpose. Note how Kiwi does not simply plunge off the cliff like a diver—he first jumps upward, plunging downward only after the natural law of gravity resumes itself. That brief moment might be a microcosm for Kiwi’s existence—aiming high, but ultimately plunging due to the laws of nature.
The flight sequence within the film—the payoff, in effect—nullifies any doubt about Kiwi’s seemingly pointless ardor. We cannot deny that Kiwi has accomplished something, or that his eccentricities have not been legitimized—the matter, then, is not if Kiwi can break free from nature, but whether he should. In other words, the question of extrinsic value comes to prominence, perhaps answered in the imagery of Kiwi’s flight. As Kiwi plunges (or perhaps “flies”) over the tree tops he seems to enter an entirely new and ethereal world, largely in thanks to contributing animator David Chontos’s cloud designs. Permedi lends the viewer a bird’s eye view (literally) of a life Kiwi has never known, and likely, a life we have never known.
Rather than simplify the experience of flight, however, Permedi reveals the complexity of emotions that must affect a first-time flyer. A clear sense of joy and wonder pervades, with Kiwi popping out his tiny vestigial wings and flapping them ferociously. Yet flight is clearly not “meant” for our friend; air resistance buffets him incessantly, and he strains to keep his eyes open. And in effect, the scene is a known illusion (if impeccably maintained); in other words, we know that Kiwi is not “really” flying; he is still slave to the natural inclination of gravitational pull. Permedi has taken the concept of flight, a traditionally transcendent concept, and given it the same complexity as the fate/freewill argument.
That vulnerability, that ambiguity, comes to a hilt in the single greatest moment of the film—a single tear that, having appeared, carries away on the wind. In the way that animation is only able to do, the scene creates a simple moment brimming with complexity—the viewer never really knows the source of the tear, so sudden and so brief. Perhaps he has achieved what he set out to do. Perhaps flight is better than imagined. Perhaps the ground is coming faster than expected. Why not all these answers? Why not none? To answer any of them would diminish the moment. Sowing confusion, not answers, in his film, Permedi fulfills the Kiwi’s otherwise ambiguous motives with some sort of clarity—perfectly understood by our wingless friend, but as explored by us, the outsider. Contained in that single tear is contained the beauty of not only life but death, the ecstasy of happiness and the throes of sadness, and everything in between. There can be no denying that Kiwi has achieved more in less than 30 seconds from cliff to ground than other sentient beings that remain ground-bound.
In spite of this realization, Permedi dares to question. After Kiwi’s brief show of emotion, we see him zoom off into a white cloud bank, and the screen begins to fade into white. For this brief moment, Kiwi seems to zoom off into eternity, and the message seems fairly explicit—by living outside our perceived bounds, we achieve salvation. But Permedi throws us one more brilliant twist—before the screen can fade to white, it recoils back on itself in an instant. The screen goes black, and we hear the unmistakable sound of a body crumpling upon impact (as bodies are wont to do, after all). Even in spite of the beauty that Kiwi has achieved, he cannot reconcile his mortality, or his nature, completely. The true finale, then, is the caption “Kiwi!” which appears, bookending the film with Youtubean simplicity that belies the beauty and tragedy within the film. Permedi’s final twist keep the fate-freewill question open, even when it appears he has achieved some form of closure.
If Permedi achieves any truth at all in his film, he persuades us to do things outside our natures, but only with the full understanding that the farther we go from nature, the greater the consequences. After all, Nature cannot protect us when we make a conscious effort to defy her. That Kiwi achieves a beauty heretofore unknown by the kiwi race is something to consider, however. Whether to pursue or eschew such a path is left to the viewer. In the mode of an intelligent animator, Permedi has used his medium not to provide answers, but to force questions.
Regardless of our answers, Permedi’s film, originally presented in 2006, does at least one definite thing: it sets a standard for quality animation. Rather than rely on animation as a gimmicky crutch, it promotes the radical idea that animated films ought to rely on animation to provoke and/or move the viewer. Would-be animated films, take note.