A young talented artist named Claire struggles to make a living, sitting on the sidewalk and making drawings for passersby. Since childhood, she’s been gifted with creativity and talent. But she lives in a world and comes from a family that fails to make much room for it.
One day as she’s drawing on the street, a businessman recognizes her gift and offers her a job as an illustrator in a greeting card factory. She goes to work, but soon discovers that the relentless grind deadens her imagination. Forced to fight for her talent, she must pull herself out of a trap that gets increasingly difficult with each effort she makes to defy it.
Textured, richly imagined and with an almost Dickensian sense of character and storytelling, this dark but captivating short animation — directed by Isabel Peppard from a script she co-wrote with producer Warwick Burton — offers a fable of creativity, imagination and freedom. Almost steampunk in its hints of Victoriana, the grit and grime of the visuals capture the squalor of poverty and the grind of work, both of which the young heroine must navigate in her quest to find self-expression.
The 3-D stop-motion and puppet animation are doll-like, but it eschews the cute and charming for the macabre, eccentric and peculiar. Its world-building is highly evocative and the visuals have an eccentricity that would appeal to fans of Tim Burton, but the writing and storytelling have the classicism of a fairy tale, with emotional clarity and evenness in the pacing. Though the creative flourishes of Claire’s art — and the film itself — verge on the surreal, there’s still a spirit of gentle innocence at the heart of the tale that’s highly approachable and relatable.
Like many heroines in fairy tales, Claire — who is voiced beautifully by Academy Award-nominated actor Rachel Griffiths — finds herself in a difficult bind and must rely on her wits and strength to get herself out. Before that can happen, though, she must learn to believe in herself and remind herself of her inner truth and light. In doing so, she gains a power that propels her into an action-packed climax that has her fighting for her freedom and liberation.
“Butterflies” is a fantastical, dark and bewitching storytelling experience, and its striking visuals offer an emotional and instinctive way of experiencing the narrative. But despite its otherworldly look and feel, it also speaks to the ordinary existential horror of dimming our light in a life of obligation and conformity. Most of us strive for a life full of meaning and purpose, but life often pulls us away from our paths. While dreams may not be fulfilled in the way we expect, losing sight of them can create a dull, even hopeless existence. Part of the work of adulthood is learning to nurture these colorful, fragile dreams, and realize it may be enough to have them in the first place.