By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 29, 2013)
Do you remember that classic Chuck Jones Warner Brothers cartoon, “Duck Amuck”? It’s the one where an increasingly discombobulated Daffy Duck punches through the Fourth Wall, alternately berating, bargaining and pleading with his omniscient animator, who keeps altering Daffy’s “reality” with pencils, erasers, pens, ink, brushes and watercolors. It’s a delightfully surreal piece of Looney Tunes existentialism.
A new feature-length animated film from France called The Painting (aka Le Tableau) takes a similar tact, albeit with less comic flair. Rather, writer-director Jean-Francois Laguionie and co-writer Anik Leray strive to deliver a gentle parable about racial tolerance meets “Art History 101”; easy to digest for kids 8 and up and adults from mildly buzzed to 420.
The story takes place in an unnamed kingdom that exists within an unfinished painting (don’t worry, not a spoiler) that is divided into a three-tiered caste system, ruled by the fully fleshed-out and colorful Alldunns. They look down on the Halfies, characters that The Painter hasn’t quite “filled in” all the way (Does God use an easel? Discuss.).
Everybody looks down on the poor Sketchies, ephemeral charcoal line figures exiled to skulk about within the confines of a “forbidden” forest (you can already see where this is going, can’t you?). A Halfie named Claire falls in love with a Montague, oops, I mean, an Alldunn named Ramo. Roundly chastised for her forbidden passion, the despairing Claire runs away and disappears into the forest. Ramo and Claire’s best friend Lola set off in search.
After the three are reunited, they inadvertently stumble out of the frame into the artist’s studio, where they find a bevy of unfinished paintings. Surreal adventures ensue, as the trio explores the worlds that exist within each of the paintings, ultimately leading them to seek the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything by setting off on a quest to “meet their maker” so they can ask him “WTF?”
While the prevalent use of muted pastels lends the visuals a slightly warmer feel than most computer animation (of which I have never been a huge fan, mostly due to that “uncanny valley” vibe that frankly creeps me out) and several lovely sequences that make for pleasant eye candy, there was still something about the characters that left me a little cold.
Another problem is that despite an intriguing premise, many elements of the narrative feel like an uninspired rehash of similar (and far more imaginative) “who made who?” fantasies like The Truman Show, Pleasantville and The Purple Rose of Cairo. And the “message” is about as subtle as the classic Star Trek episode about a perpetual civil war between two factions of “halfie” black & white striped aliens who are reverse mirror images of each other. Still, the younger viewers may be more forgiving.