As adults, we take the night for granted. As kids, however, we wondered how the stars shine, if we could lean out of our windows and touch the moon, how the curtain of day slides away into darkness, and whether the creaking floorboards and wavering shadows in the house were caused by creepy-crawly things that we’d rather not see.
Taking its cue from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and especially In the Night Kitchen, Víctor Maldonado and Adrián García’s cartoon Nocturna explores the night from a child’s perspective, offering up a fairy-tale rendition that posits that the night doesn’t merely exist, but is actively made. In this fanciful world, women tangle your hair as you sleep. Gnomes steal your socks (though only one per pair). Tiny workers inject dreams and nightmares into each of us. Each stray cat we see on a rooftop is assigned to a single child—a guardian angel, of sort, who watches us as we sleep. The cacophony of unidentifiable creaks, buzzes, drones, and ambient noise is orchestrated by a conductor and his nightly assortment of “musicians.” The glint of moonlight on clouds, the luminescence of streetlights on shop windows, the gleam of each star—it’s all constructed. There’s even a sick little git (Mr. Pee) who sneaks into bedrooms, and makes a certain number of children pee in their beds.
After all, he has to fill a quota, too. The night world is controlled by a community of workers. It’s a veritable industry, with its own bureaucracies, hierarchies, unions, time cards, and smoke breaks. Thousands of workers and supervisors tinker with the night. Maldonado and García imagine this world as rich blues, dark greens, and goldens—there’s little that is truly black in the movie—and every object glows slightly. It’s an architectural world of curlicues, fluid squiggles, and gentle curves and loops. It looks inviting, like something we could dance in. There are few straight lines, which befits a world in which little is straightforward. The Gaudi-inspired skyscrapers, lighthouses, and towers are jazzy, not jagged, and look like less substantial versions of Dr. Seuss designs. The lines are thin, and shadows obscure. The character designs are equally swinging—every character moves gracefully, in arcs and swoops, as if this space were a playground. In particular, Maldonado and García well understand the simultaneously furtive and assured movements of cats.
But it’s not a playground for all. Our hero, an annoying little boy named Tim, can’t sleep without moonlight shining on his face. Each night before he dozes, he sneaks up to the rooftop of his orphanage/boarding school (it’s never clarified satisfactorily) to draw the night skies in chalk. It’s his solace, for he doesn’t like the night. One night, he notices the absence of his favorite star in the sky. Soon, others are blinking out, and he starts to worry.
The Cat Shepherd discovers Tim on the rooftop, and tries to shoo him off to sleep—to him, Tim is a quota first. Only through Tim’s insistence that something is going wrong does the Shepherd grow to trust the boy, and to think of him as more than another box to check off. They resolve to fix the crisis.
It’s good that Nocturna’s visual world is so thoroughly refined, because Tim is sort of a cowardly blank. We’re supposed to feel sympathy when he’s picked on by other kids (because, of course, he’s a misfit), but he’s a pain in the ass who doesn’t improve much as the movie progresses. He summons up his courage at the last possible moment but only after he’s watched a friend die. His nasal tone and halting line readings don’t convey the mix of fear and excitement that kids have when facing the dark. It’s through the animation design that we see Nocturna through a child’s point-of-view, not through the cipher (Tim) who’s supposed to represent us.
Maldonado and García do better with the adult end of things. This working world, fanciful though it is, is fully realized and is uncomfortably close to ours. Petty rivalries and impertinent memos define this work environment as much as any we might face, and we can understand how something so initially magical can become mere drudgery. Still, the Cat Shepherd keeps a deep but unsentimental sense of the night’s wonder. Despite this irritating boy, he loves his job. He’s meant to convey this to Tim, but Tim’s face is so minimalist and his emotional progression is so slight that the transition doesn’t register. The voice actor’s line readings are bland, which doesn’t help.
The only truly black thing in the movie, which the Shepherd (and eventually, always simpering, Tim) fights is the villain that eats the light. This monster is apparently borne from Tim’s fear—narrative follow-through isn’t a strength, yet, of the filmmakers—and moves in slithers and lunges. His angular, ferocious design and movement is at odds with the rest of the world; it’s an efficient way of emphasizing that he doesn’t belong. The sneaky idea here is that our conception of night depends on the presence of light—without stars, without the light that causes shadows, night cannot exist. This ink-black terror threatens Nocturna by taking what makes the counterintuitive thing that makes it function. Tim’s task is to rid himself not only of fear of the night, but also of the possibility of light in his life. It’s a tricky, canny conceit, but it works because we fall in love with Maldonado and García’s nightly vision from the first frame. We want it to survive.
The protagonist, though… well, he could have bought the farm for all I care. The Cat Shepherd, though, is charming enough that I wish the directors had devoted a film to him on his own. There is, happily, a hint at the end of Nocturna that I might get my wish.