The 2011 French/Belgian animated film The Painting (originally titled Le Tableau) directed by Jean-Francois Laguionie and opening Friday at the Landmark Midtown, conveys the relationship between painting and animation with the subtlest of brush-strokes. Animation sets into motion the kind of endlessly fluid, malleable nature that painting seeks to achieve with still image. It’s as if pigment on canvas functions as a spiritual godfather to moving pixels on computer monitors and cinema screens.
Early animation made a point of saluting its origins with ink instead of paint. In Max Fleischer’s silent animated series “Out of the Inkwell,” Koko the Clown interacted with objects that literally emerged from the pen of his creator from the late 1910s to the early 1920s. The 1988 film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, paid similar homage to the materials of cartoon characters’ origin with the name of the film’s nightspot, The Ink and Paint Club.
When classic cartoon characters pick up a paintbrush, it’s usually in the service of a slapstick joke, like Wile E. Coyote painting a fake tunnel on mountainside to fool the Roadrunner, only to be flattened by a truck that (impossibly) drives out of it. Painting as fine art emerges more subtly, like an artist’s Easter egg you notice only on close examination.
Animator Robert Clampett paid one of animation’s most elaborate tributes to a painter in the 1938 cartoon “Porky in Wackyland” (remade in color in 1948 as “Dough for the Do-Do.”) To bag a reward for the elusive Do-Do, Porky Pig goes to Darkest Africa, only to find a landscape clearly derived from the surreal environments of Salvador Dali, with empty, flat horizons providing background to such bizarre sights as Dali’s signature melting clocks.
Dali long proved a favorite painter of American animators, and he storyboarded a Walt Disney film shot in the mid-1940s. The project was abandoned at the time, but revived almost 60 years later as the short film “Destino.” For six slippery minutes, one image morphs into another with Dali-appropriate dream logic, earning the film an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short.
The now-obscure animated musical Gay Purr-ee (1962), produced and co-written by animation icon Chuck Jones, also provides animators a chance to salute their painting icons. The film concerns cats in 1895 Paris and features an extensive sequence of the heroine Mewsette (Judy Garland) inspiring the work of such iconic painters as Money, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh, Cezanne and Picasso. The prominence of the parodies signals that the filmmakers assumed that audiences would recognize the originals. Today, the long-running animated series “The Simpsons” occasionally includes references to classic paintings, but usually as background gags or in the service of jokes. In the episode “Mom and Pop Art,” Homer Simpson suffered a nightmare in a museum that included attacks from da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Picasso’s Three Musicians, Andy Warhol’s soup cans and, inevitably, Dali.
Stylistically, the feature film The Painting, emulates the artists of a similar era as Gay Purr-ee, including Chagall, Picasso, Matisse and others. The film opens on a lush, unfinished gilt-framed painting depicting a palace overlooking a garden, with a jungle visible in the foreground. The camera tracks into the painting, where we discover a lively society with a rigid social structure based on the subjects aesthetic completions. The finished “Alldunns” live in the palace as the ruling class, while the incomplete “Halfies” are restricted to the garden. There’s also an untouchable underclass, the “Sketchies,” who resemble charcoal outlines. The Painting’s most visually intriguing creations, the Sketchies not only appear less distinct, but seem physically insubstantial, being easily crumpled up, as if made of paper.
A Romeo-and-Juliet-esque romance unfolds between Ramo, an Alldunn, and Claire, a Halfie with an uncolored, black-and-white face reminiscent of a Modigliani. Their forbidden love affair only drives part of the plot, which also follows a plucky Halfie named Lola who longs to escape the confines of the painting and explore distant lands. Characters argue whether the quasi-mythic “Painter” will return one day to finish his work: The extent to which the characters comprehend that they exist in a painting is never very clear.
Lola, Ramo and a Sketchie embark on a trip to find The Painter, giving The Painting a quest dynamic comparable to The Wizard of Oz. They discover the ability to find the boundaries of the painting, where the film’s animation style makes the pattern of the canvas more distinct. They emerge in a proportionately gigantic, neglected art studio, and the painted animated characters interact in a photorealistic environment. They also discover that they can enter and exit other paintings in the studio, a time-honored cartoon tradition showcased most ingeniously in the Louvre scene of Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003).
Other paintings in the studio include a topless odalisque in repose, a perpetual war waged by combatants resembling toy soldiers and the painter’s own self-portrait, who imitates the original’s personality, but lacks free will. The Painting touches on some intriguing concepts about the relationship of an artist to his creations and the impulse for individuals to seek spiritual meaning. It’s unfortunate that such imaginatively conceived characters prove physically inexpressive and have such flat vocal performances.
Aesthetically, The Painting’s biggest surprise is its nature as a 3D computer animated film, given that it looks to be a hand-drawn creation. While today’s hit CGI features from DreamWorks and Pixar tend to emphasize bright colors, smooth surfaces and the illusion of depth of field, Laguionie’s film conveys flatness, with the colors having the aged quality of dried paint. While the film’s drama proves rather colorless, its ideas and affection for the craft of painting fairly burst from the frame.
The Painting. Directed by Jean-François Laguionie. Not rated. 78 min. Opens Fri., June 21, at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
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