If you thought Pixar had cornered the market on devastating animated stories, wait until you see what the orphans in Liyana have created. This documentary focuses on an orphanage in remote Swaziland, where 25 percent of adults have HIV, and like many African countries, has seen its wealth dwindle due to drought and Western greed.
As a project to stoke their creativity and process their situations, the owners of the orphanage bring in a children's book author, who gives the children prompts to write their own stories. Their suggestions are compiled, and then animated, into the story of Liyana, an orphan much like them, who goes on a dangerous quest to rescue her twin brothers.
While much of the story is basic Joseph Campbell Hero's Journey stuff, like any story, it's made memorable by its details. And the children, whom you'd think would be abstract in the challenges Liyana has to face, are surprisingly real, drawing from their own real-life horrors (kidnapping, food insecurity) to bring to life an engaging, uplifting story.
Still, we don't get to learn much about the children themselves. They are all resilient in the face of hardship, but the filmmakers do little to make them stand out from one another. That keeps Liyana from being as powerful as it could be, but when the storytelling is this compelling, that can be forgiven.
While the animated interludes are gorgeous and exciting, I'd love if someday we got a full-length version of the story. The bones of it are up there with anything Disney, Ghibli or Laika have produced in recent years.