Liyana Review

Review: Liyana

Score: B

Director: Aaron Kopp, Amanda Kopp

Cast: Gcina Mhlophe

Running Time: 77 Minutes

Rated: NR

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.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.