Eight years after My Life as a Zucchini premiered in Directors’ Fortnight en route to winning two Césars (and nabbing one Oscar nomination), Swiss director Claude Barras returns to Cannes with Savages, an emotionally resonant stop-motion fable that looks at rampant deforestation on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia. 

A tight 87 minutes, Savages wastes no time tossing us directly into the action as pre-treen Kéria and her palm-oil-extractor father witness his employer’s murder of an orangutan. Despite this killing occurring off-screen, it is very distressing. The father-daughter duo act quickly to hide the lone survivor, a baby orangutan, in their bag. With this harrowing opening, Savages relays that the death and destruction at the center of its narrative will not be sugar-coated for children. 

This very cute orangutan is named Oshi, due to the sneeze sound he makes, and is primarily an accessory for the 11-year-old Kéria––a live stuffed animal to take selfies with. Matters for Kéria are complicated when her cousin Selaï (Martin Verset) comes to live with them. He hails from the nomadic Penan people, and the conflict with the corporate palm oil extractors and the Penan has reached such a boiling point that his family wants him moved somewhere safe.

Like the best children’s films, Savages isn’t afraid to display the cruelty children can swiftly dole out should their social status become at stake, and Kéria is openly dismissive to her strange cousin.  She is able to pass as white in a way that Selaï is definitively not––not that he’d even want to. He carries pride in his heritage. Selaï’s presence at school effectively outs her Penan background to classmates. This all plays out like another stop-motion classic, Fantastic Mr. Fox, only in the inverse. In that one, it was the visiting cousin, Kristofferson, who’s the cool one, and Ash who bemoans his arrival.

In a familiar narrative beat, Selaï, after taking his fill of verbal abuse from Kéria, escapes into the forest with Oshi, forcing Kéria to venture after him. Like the enthralling woods-set opening, the density of the Borneo rain forest in this middle section is an animation highlight of Savages, with Herzogian danger lurking around every corner for these young kids. 

Stop-motion animation is such a rarity that it’s almost miraculous to view in a theater, especially the lauded space of Cannes. Computer animation still fills the programming dockets at festivals worldwide, though typically in the short department. But there’s something unique about stop motion, in witnessing the level of care paid to every little detail, that is even more pronounced when experienced on a large screen. With Savages and My Life as a Zucchini, Barras proves himself one of the top-tier directors working in the craft today. Hopefully his next feature will be sooner than eight years away. 

Savages is being paired with an educational NGO effort about these harmful operations in Borneo. Impact campaigns have come a long way since an onscreen text at the end of Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond implored audiences not to buy blood diamonds, a silly strategy––if closing text is necessary to convince audiences, then the preceding film is an abject failure. Narrative and documentaries with clear messages or targeted impact strategies are tricky; there might be an impulse in the edit to present said message in the clearest way. This, thankfully, is not the case with Savages, which is more than willing to engage in the messy complications of it all. It looks at how corporations manipulate hard economic realities of families by offering the only viable jobs to those who might not believe in a company’s mission but have no alternatives––they can’t starve. That Savages questions the notion that progress for its own sake is inherently good doesn’t mean it rejects modernity outright. Selaï’s Penan grandfather unabashedly uses a cell phone, for instance. Selaï is sent to Kéria’s school for safety but also because his family wants him to learn. 

At a distance, Savages might appear a simple David vs. Goliath, community vs. corporate interest showdown, but Barras constantly strings reminders along the fringes that the complexities in these conversations are just as important to consider. And while engineered so that children can follow along with their adult counterparts, there is a recognition that the earlier children can begin to interact with this nuance, the better equipped they will be to take a stand. Most importantly, Savages achieves this within a beautifully animated, narratively engaging, and tight package. 

Savages premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: B+

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