Courtesy of SXSW Online 2021

In America, we often seem to associate animated movies with children. The big animation giants — Disney, Pixar (which is just Disney, of course) and DreamWorks are all kid-friendly fare, even if their films remain palatable to adult audiences (Pixar’s latest: the existential “Soul”). Even the most popular foreign studio distributed in America, the hallowed Studio Ghibli, caters primarily to those doe-eyed youngsters we call cute, and the occasional stop-motion Wes Anderson film is likewise marketed as kid-centric fun for the whole family.

That’s not always the case abroad. The anime industry has been producing mature, sometimes-inscrutable films like “Akira” and “Ghost in the Shell” for years. In Spain, they made animated flicks about the life of acclaimed film director Luis Buñuel, and in France, they rendered sagas about motile severed hands.

This isn’t to bash on Disney or Pixar — American animation is often wonderful. The genre has been a mover, a shaker and a trend-setter, and it goes without saying that the art form owes a debt to Walt Disney. But compared to the rest of the world, we’re maybe just a tad ‘babyish.’

But “The Spine of Night,” from American animation studio Gorgonaut, sets out to change that. In no uncertain terms, “The Spine of Night” is not for children.

It opens with a nude woman (who refreshingly doesn’t conform to Barbie doll beauty standards and is never once objectified) scaling an Everest-like mountain — this is Tzod, a nature priestess voiced by sword-and-sorcery veteran Lucy Lawless (“Mosley”). At its summit, she finds an agape, cyclopean skull, within which grows a delicate, shimmering blue flower. 

As she kneels to examine the flower, she is confronted by the blade of an evocatively armored Guardian, voiced by Richard E. Grant (“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”). To stay his sword, she insists on telling him a story, and thus, with this bit of prolepsis, the movie begins in earnest.

The brainchild of co-writer-directors Philip Gelatt (“Europa Report”) and Morgan Galen King (in his feature-length debut), “The Spine of Night” is the culmination of King’s short film “Exordium” — which is only eight minutes long but contains graphic content — and serves as something like a prequel to the film at large. The short and feature both employ simple colors, rotoscoped high-octane action and incredible displays of violence (though “The Spine of Night” considerably improves its style, especially in its background art).

These incredible displays of violence are the tools by which Gelatt and King distinguish this film as an adult animated feature unfit for the very young. We’re talking truly gratuitous ultraviolence — slashing and piercing and bludgeoning and breaking — made barely palatable only by the fact that the film’s animated nature allows one to mentally keep it at a distance. It’s gristly, metal stuff — viscera are indelicately exposed, appendages get lopped off, bones burst and bodies are bisected. Left and right people are perforated like Swiss cheese. 

But “The Spine of Night” isn’t simply some gorefest extravaganza, screaming that “cartoons are for grown-ups too!” The spilled entrails are simply a garnish on what is otherwise a captivating epic. It isn’t your classic sword-and-sorcery — “get to A and B to stop the Dark Lord and reclaim the such-and-such powerful doodad.” It’s got the Dark Lord, here known as Ghal-Sur (voiced by Jordan Douglas Smith, in his feature film debut), and and the powerful doodad (hint: that shiny blue flower), that’s true enough. 

But the stories Tzod tells the Guardian, and the stories the Guardian tells her, span eons. With a few exceptions, Galen and King don’t let you get attached to any character — whether by bloody dismemberment or by the fact that the plot travels at a pace measured in lifetimes, every character meets their maker.

Movies set up this way are often hard to connect to. Our palates are trained to want those stable character arcs and developed interiors. And with centuries of narrative to cover, the beats sometimes move a bit quickly, and character and viewer alike have little time to pause or consider as the plot pushes forward. But its strengths — truly excellent world-building and sheer strength of creativity — more than make up for this.

Tzod’s stories include an intriguing, incredibly evocative cast of characters, from a strapping Eunuch King (Joe Manganiello, “Archenemy”) to an Indiana Jones-esque warrior-scholar (Betty Gabriel, “Get Out”) and a squad of goggled, wingsuit-ed assassins. Sometimes it’s hard to remember their names, and we never know much backstory, but each carries enough mystique, stylistic flair and momentary depth that they could justify an entire movie of their own. 

It’s this quality — the suggestion of a fully articulated world just beyond the frame — that keeps the story endlessly fresh and interesting. Paired with ruminations on the nature and meaning of existence, power, moral responsibility the film becomes something truly worth paying attention to.

“The Spine of Night,” in gory, fantastical fashion, offers a strong reminder that animation has never been just for kids.

Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at luskja@umich.edu.