Wednesday, April 25, 2018

"Loving Vincent" and "The Breadwinner"

2017 wasn't a good year for US animation.  "Coco" and "The LEGO Batman Movie" were very good, and I continue to defend "Captain Underpants" and "Boss Baby," but mostly we got a lot of sequels and uninspired junk like "The Emoji Movie."  This year's Oscar nominees in the Animated Film category suggest there might be some potential alternatives, however, from studios overseas.

I'm sorry to say that "Loving Vincent" never overcomes its gimmick, which is that the entire film is done in the same style as Vincent Van Gogh's paintings.  Each frame was hand-painted by artists who laboriously transformed live-action footage of actors shot on a green screen into individual oil paintings. The effect is fantastic, and some may find that the film is worth a watch for the unique visuals alone.  Everything else, however, leaves much to be desired.

The plot involves a young man named Armand (Douglas Booth), who has a letter from the deceased Vincent van Gogh (Robert Gulaczyk) for Vincent's brother Theo.  Having discovered that Theo has also died, Armand goes on to meet with Vincent's other acquaintances to figure out who the letter should be delivered to. This leads him to investigate the circumstances around Vincent's death, which Armand comes to believe are suspicious.  His travels take him to many of the places that Vincent frequented and painted, creating the opportunity for the film to place the characters in famous Vincent van Gogh paintings like "Cafe Terrace at Night," "Church at Auvers," and "Wheatfield With Crows."

The murder mystery, frankly, is neither well written nor well acted.  As good as the visuals are, they can't hide the middling performances, tepid dialogue, and general tedium of the undercooked plotting.  As Armand wanders from place to place and famous painting to famous painting, the film drags terribly. And while the style of the picture is executed beautifully in many scenes, in others the seams are showing.  In the black-and-white flashback especially, it's hard to get away from the feeling that the painted images are just live-action footage run through a filter. Animation with oil painting has been done before in shorts, often to much better effect, so the practice isn't all that novel.  I've also seen it executed far better in the past.

A more successful film is "The Breadwinner," made by Cartoon Saloon, the Irish animation studio behind "The Secret of Kells" and "Song of the Sea."  It follows a little girl named Parvana (Saara Chaudry) in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, who decides to try and pass herself off as a boy after her father Nurullah (Ali Badshah) is arrested, leaving his family in jeopardy.  This is some very bleak subject matter, and treated very seriously. The filmmakers don't shy away from putting their young heroine in dangerous situations, and showing the casual violence that the citizens of Kabul face on a daily basis.  The film isn't as intense or disturbing as more explicitly war-themed pictures like "Grave of the Fireflies," but it's dealing with similar subject matter.

Those familiar with Cartoon Saloon's previous films might be taken aback by how visually subdued "The Breadwinner" looks.  The color palette is dominated by grays and browns. It's only the sequences depicting a fantasy story that Parvana tells to her toddler brother that we see brighter colors and more fanciful designs.  However, the visuals are excellent overall, helping to make the plight of Parvana and her family feel more universal and immediate. It's another nice example of animation being able to tell stories in ways that are more accessible than live action.

The only thing about the film that gives me pause is that it doesn't quite ping as a genuine Afghan story. I'm sure everyone involved was well-meaning, and at least  the cast is made up of entirely of Middle-Eastern names, but at the same time Parvanah clearly isn't a real Afghan child and her story, though it contains many darker elements, feels very idealized.  Then again, it was daring for the filmmakers to have tackled this kind of subject matter at all, and it's hardly the first animated film aimed at young audiences to have taken liberties with reality.


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