Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Hidden Animated Worlds: Epic and The Painting

It's funny how, when one plans what seems like an obvious double feature, the pieces don't quite seem to go together so well as they do on paper. Take Epic and The Painting, both of which I wanted to review earlier because it didn't look like anyone else on EFC would take them (clearly, we needed multiple Fast & Furious 6 and Hangover 3 reviews instead!) but where the schedule didn't really line up until Sunday evening - both animated, both aimed at a younger audience, and both about tiny people in worlds hidden within our own dealing with things at a different scale. Seems like an obvious pairing. In fact, maybe the sort of obvious pairing that is so on the nose that you don't do it, lest it seem repetitious or mark one film as obviously inferior.

Thankfully, it doesn't wind up being like that at all. Yes, the two have a lot of surface similarities and The Painting is a great movie while Epic is just pretty good, but they wind up being very different experiences. Epic plays things very safe while trying to appear ambitious, while The Painting sneaks a lot of ideas into its decptively simple frame.

One thing that surprised me when opening the IMDB page up for reference while writing up Epic is that its director, Chris Wedge, hasn't had that credit on a movie since 2005's Robots, which kind of puts a llittle bit of a lie to my attempts to pigeonhole him. He has produced a few sequels to his feature debut, Ice Age, and a few other Blue Sky pictures, but that strikes me as a long time to go between directing gigs, even if animation does have a long development cycle. Even with his more prominent position at Disney, I don't think John Lasseter is quite that subsumed in the business end of things.

Giving the film that particular name (a generic thing likely meant to keep it from seeming too obviously kid-oriented) probably saddles it with some too-big expectations, as well. The funny thing is, I think it would actually seem more epic without its main character. Without M.K., the world would seem big; having her around and constantly fretting about returning to her regular size just reinforces how small it is. She also winds up being one of those teenagers that sounds too adult when talking with her dad, and the filmmakers never really find a way to use that.

The Painting, on the other hand...

First, I'd just like to say how glad I am that there were subtitled screenings available. One of the potentially frustrating things about GKIDS is that, while they absolutely do fine work in bringing great international animation to the American audiences, they do tend to push their dubs pretty heavily. Given who their main audience is (right in the name), it's understandable, but there are a lot of us who want it as-is. One advantage to DCP projection is that it should be less of a hassle for theaters to have both versions on tap, and hopefully this split will continue with the rest of the releases.

So with that said, lets get right to the part where the atheist talks about the movie's handling of religious issues!

I don't think that this is a picture that can be completely construed as anti-religious; looking at it from the outside; there's no denying the existence of the characters' deity. The big difference between the Painter and the Christian God, though, is that the Painter does not seem to make any particular demands of his paintings - not even ones that are invented by them. Certainly, the Allduns use him as a way to justify their position of power, while the lower classes predict that he will return someday, but there aren't any scenes where anybody worries about displeasing their creator and being punished for it.

So skepticism isn't necessarily what Jean-François Laguionie and Anik Leray are trying to get across as much as practicality: Even if there is a God, his perspective is different than ours - he may move on to the next painting or tear things up for reasons we can't understand (and "God works in mysterious ways" does not necessarily mean "He has a plan for us"). Ultimately, the Painter is not necessarily relevant to one's everyday life, so you had best learn how to paint yourself.


Still, there is room for different perspectives. As the movie goes on, we see that Lola appears to have a different view - where the others worry about bringing themselves up to Alldun status, she seems to recognize that there is something wonderful about being unfinished or just who she is - she hears the self-portrait talk about being stuck feeling one way, and while the nude worries about her missing dress, Lola points out that she is beautiful as she is. And when the others are all painting themselves new colors willy-nilly, she sneaks away, meets the Painter, and doesn't flinch at him. Her response to the knowledge she gains is wonderful: More cuirosity; she wants to find the one who painted the Painter.


That's an awesomely grand idea - truly epic, you might say - and it's handled in a way that doesn't seem disrespectful at all. That's a rare feat, and kudos to The Painting for managing it.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 May 2013 in Regal Fenway #1 (first-run, RealD)

It's a bit surprising to see a movie called "Epic" come from Blue Sky Studios and its founder Chris Wedge; of all the studios making animated features today, they are the one whose style is most based on kid-friendly cartooning; how will they mix with a story that promises more grandeur and danger? And while this is still something of a light adventure, this group is so good at putting things on screen that it's always a feast for the eyes,

There are two scales to the world, it posits. At the human scale, Mary Katherine (voice of Amanda Seyfried) is coming to live with her estranged father after her mother's death. At a much smaller scale, the Leaf People are locked in a battle for the fate of the forest with the Boggins. Today, when the summer solstice coincides with the full moon, Queen Tara (voice of Beyoncé Knowles) can choose an heir, though her chief guardian Ronin (voice of Colin Farrell) warns of an attack. It comes, and since M.K. was in the the woods, she winds up shrunk down to Leaf Person size, and will have to help Ronin and young hot-shot Nod (voice of Josh Hutcherson) keep the pod safe from the Boggins' king Mandrake (voice of Christoph Waltz).

Say this for Blue Sky: They make absolutely beautiful movies, and Epic is no exception to this rule. While some of the human faces sometimes seem to lack some of the detail given to everything else, they're expressive enough, and they're dropped into an amazingly detailed world - it's a sheer joy to just look at the leaf-based clothing and armor the Leaf People and Boggins have, especially the ones that are based on specific flowers or insects. The environments are similarly elaborate, and animals like mice and hummingbirds look nifty from that scale.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Le Tableau (The Painting)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 May 2013 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run, DCP)

The Painting (Le Tableau in the original French) is beautiful, and witty, and smart; you can tell that from the first frame of this movie about the lives of the figures inside a painting. And if it merely maintained that level of cleverness it would be something special. Instead, it kicks things up a notch, giving the audience even bigger ideas to chew on when it could just be tidying up.

Within one particular painting, there is a rather rigid class system - those who have been completely painted, the "Allduns", live in the castle; the ones who lack some finishing brushstrokes, "Halfies", are shut out and occupy the garden; while both look down on the "Sketchies". Alldun Ramo (voice of Adrien Larmande) and Halfie Claire (voice of Chloe Bertier) are in love but must meet clandestinely, and one of those meetings results in Ramo, Claire's young friend Lola (voice of Jessica Monceau), and Quill (voice of Thierry Jahn) - a Sketchie with good reason to be resentful - on a boat heading for the edge of the painting, then emerging into the studio with the aim of asking the Painter to finish them.

As the film starts, it looks like director Jean-François Laguionie and his co-writer Anik Leray are primarily going to be using the painting as a metaphor for race and class, and they get a lot of good material out of that: There's no mistaking the fascism in the words of Alldun leader Candlestick, and even the younger, more idealistic characters like Ramo and Lola can find themselves unconsciously treating Quill poorly. A pit stop in another painting of armies battling features a pointless war based entirely on whether the soldiers' uniforms are painted red or green. It's not always subtle, but it's well-done.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

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