Animation lives in a very strange place. It’s the medium in which filmmakers can exert the greatest possible control, yet it stands at a distance from that world’s highest accolades, often not even considered a viable contender. It’s a punishing realm, where even a short piece may need a five-year gestation and any ambitious auteur will inevitably be drawn into comparisons with titanic cultural institutions like Disney and Studio Ghibli. But as technology continues to speed and streamline the creative process, the form faces a potential paradigm shift. Work done in 3D — once a pleasing novelty and later a pervasive venue for movies about talking animals — can aim for the nuanced expression and experimental chops of other styles of art cinema. Riding this line between classical and forward-thinking stylistic modes is Jean-François Laguionie’s The Painting.
The film tells a relatively simple but conceptually rich story. The action concerns the inhabitants of an unfinished painting: the Alldunns, fully drawn individuals who reign as supreme nobility; the Halfies, peasants relegated to squalid huts by virtue of their incompleteness of color and texture; and Sketchies, who are exactly what their name sounds like, and are so despised for their imperfection that they may be killed on sight. One may roll their eyes at the straightforwardness and familiarity of the allegory, but its really not what the film is about. In fact, Laguionie and co-author Anik Leray use the motif to give the audience an immediate orientation before wildly expanding the scope of the action. It’s trick-exposition. A band of characters, one from each caste, thrown together in search of a missing friend, escape from the titular painting and find themselves in an artists studio. Suddenly, their sphere of existence shrinks to a flat tableau, one among dozens, easily forgotten by draping a sheet over it.
The Painting’s narrative draws from so many places that it seems impossible to siphon them out individually. On the one hand, it’s a fable about drawings coming to life. On the other, it’s about the search for ones creator and for meaning in the universe. On one hand, its about painting as a diminished method of expression and the relationship between an artist and his or her work. On the other, its about empathy and exploration. (This paragraph is especially effective if the reader mimes comparative weighing with both palms.) That’s not the say that the film is remarkable just because it features a complex, thoughtful plot. Laguionie’s work is successful because the mix is so spectacular. Much like a good soundscape, the ideas present in The Painting weave together and in and out of focus so astutely that the drama always remains believable, which is no small task in an animated piece, that itself is diegetically concerned with animated characters.
The film’s art style seeks to emulate early 20th century painters, which is a necessary functional choice to serve the story. It’s curious that sections occurring inside the actual canvases are rendered in 3D and not 2D, a choice that evidently is rooted in pragmatism, but the celluloid-shaded look is smooth and relaxed, reflective of the static nature of a painting and contemplative air of a gallery. The director commits to his notion that “animation must not draw attention to itself,” avoiding Roger Rabbit and leaning towards an earnestness that is often absent from the fantastical or the post-modern, let alone combinations of the two.
Though the specificity of its subject matter keeps it from signifying too much about the trajectory of animation in the near future, The Painting does embody a mindset that could produce a more refined connection with the field. The dichotomy between monolithic studios (can you name the director/s of your favorite Disney movie?) and oddball outsider creations may be folding in upon itself. Laguionie has a foot in both camps, utilizing bigger-budget resources while maintaining and utilizing a niche-culture sensibility. It’s not incidental, then, that he’s able to deliver a film that essentially takes on a half dozen visual art-forms, and melds them into a cohesive, satisfying story.