Film review by Nathanial Eker
If there's an animated film to put you off visiting the deserts of Australia, it's Bilby. This delightful short from Dreamworks Animation hits all the right emotional beats to create a fast-paced, exciting, and heartwarming adventure. Throw in a top-notch score from composer Benjamin Wallfisch and stunning visuals and you get a classical short that blends the best of the often saccharine Pixar shorts with the comedic edge of early Warner Bros. cartoons.
A lone bilby wanders the depths of the Australian outback, desperately searching for food. When he stumbles across a baby gull, he must contend with spiders, snakes, and everything else the desert has to throw at him as he tries to protect it.
Dreamworks Animation has the advantage of being a little more 'edgy' than its contemporaries and Bilby is no exception. Its protagonist is world-weary and the script manages to get away with one or two darker jokes that a certain mouse would never be allowed to include. That's not to say it doesn't provide the euphorically happy ending that you'd expect from an animated short aimed at children, but the little bits of grit that it does provide make its conclusion feel all the more earned.
The lack of dialogue works in this picture's favour as we're forced to focus on its slapstick humour, rising stakes, and clear-cut character motivation. As is appropriate for the Australian outback, there's no sob-story about a lost parent or a search for a new life, it's simply; 'don't die'. This realistic take on the animal kingdom is nothing new (it's been the Roadrunner's MO for years), but it is a refreshingly simple goal that lends itself to an eight minute short.
That's not to say that the grunts and tweets of David P. Smith and the undisputed king of strange animal noises Dee Bradley Baker aren't effective. Their input does much to humanise our protagonists and Smith in particular adds a frantic urgency that gives the bilby immediate and likeable character. This of course is supported by stellar animation, which captures the detail of both creatures down to the last hair, while still making them distinctly cartoonish. The gull baby will likely give Baby Yoda a run for his money with its 'aww inspiring' cuteness.
Bilby captures the heart of the outback well with a fantastic mise-en-scéne that emphasises block colours and makes every frame pop. The montage of the different desert threats in particular allows the animators to create varied and bright environments, even if they're shown for a mere split second. Much like the sometimes gritty script, the landscape is unashamedly harsh, creating an environment of real danger for our tiny leads. Things won't get too scary for the kids though, thanks to the derpy cartoon eyes drawn onto every snake and scorpion.
Benjamin Wallfisch's exceptional score does much to help craft this hazardous land of doom. The use of traditional Australian instruments during the film's former half sets the scene and creates an immediately intense atmosphere. As the film progresses, Wallfisch's score descends into more traditional heartwarming animated leitmotifs, but these too are excellent. There are shades of the phenomenal How to Train Your Dragon both visually and musically, particularly as the bibly is lifted up by a natural air current in a staggering set-piece.
If there is one element that distracts, it is the director's unfortunate penchant for the occasional zoom shot, particularly during tense chase sequences. This modern blockbuster trope feels strange and out of place in this delightful short, though it's a minor issue.
This nitpick does nothing to detract from how excellent Bilby is. Like its protagonist during its climactic scene, the film soars and is a stellar example of how to make a self-contained short film. It's simple, it's charming, it's endearing; it's everything you could want from such a film. Look out Pixar, there's a new sheriff in town and he's an adorable little fella with big blue ears.