An impressively bleak animated feature with an incongruously cute name, Wrinkles only sounds like it will contain life-affirming high jinks. Instead, it’s quick to confront the realities of aging. As soon as the elderly Emilio (voiced by Martin Sheen) is dropped off at an old folks’ home in contemporary Spain, it becomes clear that the facility—clean and polished as it is—is really part day care (Emilio is told he’ll be able to spend time with people his “own age”) and part prison (a sliding metal gate shuts behind him).
Emilio’s roommate is Miguel (George Coe), a sardonic smooth-talker who still has his wits about him, and uses them to maintain low-key swindles over some of the other residents, insisting that they only keep them (and him) properly occupied. Wrinkles, a Spanish film based on a graphic novel and dubbed into English for its U.S. release, follows the friendship between Emilio and Miguel in unexpected directions, with an unhurried and sometimes lyrical sense of time’s slippery passage. Animation as a medium is uniquely well-suited to portraying these temporal shifts and how they to relate to Emilio’s wavering mental faculties, from flashbacks to his younger days to brief, unnerving moments of disorientation.
The animation in Wrinkles, though, is less adept at bringing the humans at its center to life. While the backgrounds have a simple but painterly quality, the character animation looks like it belongs to a television or high-end Internet production. The animators’ lines sometimes resemble the drawing style of the late, lamented TV series The Critic, but the elderly faces here lack that show’s caricature-like expressiveness. The staid, limited movement may be realistic, given the age of the characters, but it’s not much to look at.
Similarly, the dialogue, at least in its translated form, maintains a stiff politeness; even Miguel’s irreverent wisecracks and rants against the indignities of growing old feel a little canned. The film is at its best when locating the heartbreaking details in its sketchily drawn ensemble, like the way one woman hordes little packets of butter and jam to offer her visiting grandson, or the lovely explanation of an inside joke between an ailing husband and his still-sharp wife. But even some of the artsier digressions feel like self-conscious time-killers: After an audible offscreen car accident, for example, the “camera” does an ultra-slow pan from the empty frame, down to the asphalt, and around to finally reveal… a crashed car. It’s an elaborate shot that conveys very little.
The film deserves recognition for pursuing the kind of adult audience the major American animation studios ignore; imagine DreamWorks or Blue Sky deciding to put out a startling, Amour-like look at the ravages of age, particularly Alzheimer’s. Ultimately, though, Wrinkles doesn’t offer the aesthetic rewards necessary to make its sad material compelling.