“To insanity and beyond.” That has been the cry of screen animation through the ages. But the art of great screen animation, surely, is to go one step beyond madness, beyond the facile gifts of anarchy and anti-gravity. It is to make the madness meaningful. Toy Story and Toy Story 2 did that: they made a “human” drama from a bunch of interacting dolls and plastic animals. They forced filmgoers to go “Ooh” and “Aah” at the feelings and actions of a pull-string cowboy (Woody), a toy spaceman (Buzz), a Mr and Mrs Potato Head, a Barbie, a Slinky Dog, a Little Bo Peep and the rest.
If there were a Nobel Prize for Digital Animation it would have been won almost every year by Pixar. Toy Story 3D () is more of the same: more gentle brilliance; more perfect eye, ear, mind and heart co-ordination. I understand how
a film company can assemble the best techno-geeks, even the best craftsmen. I don’t understand how they, Pixar, also get the people who understand great comedy, drama
and storytelling wisdom. The Shakespeares of pixellation.
It is a toy’s tragedy – ask any toy – that its owner grows up. So Andy, the little boy in TS and TS2, is now a college-bound older teen while Woody, Buzz and Co wonder if they are bound for the attic, the dumpster or the kiddies’ day care centre. Turns out it’s the last. But it turns out that the last is a neo-fascist state, led by the chief toy, a strawberry-scented care bear called Lotso (voice of Ned Beatty in best southern-cracker snarl). Can Woody lead his team to safety? Even to survival? Can they live on when even the flames of the town’s incinerator are licking at them in the action climax?
None of this is Shakespeare. It is good comedy and great kinetic knockabout. What is bardic, what is vatic, apart from the sprinkling of higher grace-notes and character inventiveness throughout – the day-care centre’s actorly hedgehog Mr Pricklepants (“We do a lot of improv here”), the moment when a newly radicalised Barbie tells Lotso, “Authority should derive from the will of the governed, not from brute force” (must have been reading Tom Paine) – is the turn of pathos and wisdom after the action and comedy climaxes. I won’t plot-spoil, but darned if there isn’t a tear in the spectator’s eye as the toys learn that the way to grow up is to change while staying the same. Or to stay the same while changing. Home is where the sense of self is. That’s it. That’s true wisdom. That’s Pixar. Where’s the Nobel Prize committee?
Christopher Nolan’s Inception () , written and directed by Hollywood’s current favourite Limey (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight), favours a potentially forbidding abstract word for title rather than two marquee monikers that must have screamed for consideration. Especially in Warner’s marketing office. The title could have been In Your Dreams, since the plot has Leonardo DiCaprio breaking into the subconscious mind of a young industrialist (Cillian Murphy), purposely sedated on an aeroplane, in order to plant a world-changing idea. Or it could have been The Dream Team, since DiCaprio’s mind-invading hit squad is literally that, including a bankrolling Japanese businessman (Ken Watanabe), a dashing young lieutenant (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a deep-sleep drug expert (Dileep Rao) and, of course, a pretty girl (Ellen Page). Inception may be the brainiest hokum ever released in a cinematic summer. Imagine Last Year in Marienbad wandering into the orbit of producer Jerry Bruckheimer. The screen explodes with action thrills to keep the teens happy. Yet the plot is at times so complex – the multi-level dream-sharing as Team DiCaprio dive in to share their victims’ imposed snooze – that only an IQ of 250, or a child of 10 (teethed on new-age computer games), could possibly decode it.
DiCaprio bravely enters another Psycho-Babel mere months after Shutter Island. He does these tangled mental struggles well. But the true star of Inception is the mind of Nolan. I don’t mean his dream-share idea: we have been there, done that, in Elm Street and elsewhere. No, Nolan’s brainstorms are the passing visual ones: the Paris street that upends and folds in on itself, the stairs that vanish beneath walkers’ feet, zero-gravity dream states where we walk on walls and ceilings.
Yet there, too, is the rub. We don’t walk on walls and ceilings in dreams. Dreams are not like that. Their matter, mainly, is reality. They just mix reality in weird and hyper-real ways, shuffling the deck of the humdrum. So we should say to Nolan: “Beware what you dream of as a filmmaker.” Getting his $170m budget, for his fantastic effects, for his audiovisual bells and bangs and whistles, he has lost the simple delicate magic of dreaming. Perhaps he needs to remake Inception, sometime in the future, using the budget he had, before international fame, with Memento.
Rapt, () from Belgian filmmaker Lucas Belvaux, shows how spellbinding the “ordinary” can be. At least after a catalysing flurry of the extraordinary. A rich businessman (Yvan Attal) is kidnapped. Pitched into hell – masked abductors, a chopped finger, a dictated ransom demand – he must then wait. So must we. So must the family, headed by a wife (Anne Consigny) confronted with the gutter-sniping of the tabloids, revealing the businessman’s affairs, his gambling, his secret vices. The illusions drip away from a life and a reputation, like paint running down the canvas of a formal portrait. The movie’s suspense is less “Will the hero be freed?”, more, “What life will he have left if and when he is?” For all the grim reductiveness, the style is taut, the story tense, the acting strong.
Mega Piranha () isn’t bad either. In Venezuela, fish are jumping in ways undreamed of by George Gershwin in Porgy and Bess. The designer-trashy tone is well sustained – these people brought you Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus – as the toothy threat moves from the Amazon to the Florida Keys. No one has told the fish, or the filmmakers, that there is a worse threat still in the Gulf of Mexico, where BP (“Bad for Piranhas”?) is pumping poison straight into the water. Since the film was made BC, Before Catastrophe, we have a more routine showdown involving nuclear blasts. Before that, the creatures have fun growing exponentially larger every 36 hours – big enough to jump and bring down helicopters – while the actors deliver the dialogue honed to cringe at.
French filmmaker Catherine Breillat used to scandalise us with naked actors doing naughty things on camera (Romance, Anatomy of Hell). She has gone into reverse with The Last Mistress (2006) and now Bluebeard. () Everyone wears costumes; eroticism is in the tilt of an eyebrow or lilt of the dialogue. This fancy dress tale about a young teenage girl (Lola Creton) leaving her penniless parents to marry the rich Duke Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas) is a little cumbrous in its nuancing. It tries for post-Freudian shading and Angela Carterish psychosexuality. Bluebeard is already famous for uxoricide. The girl clearly craves some complex Liebestod. We end with a head on a platter. But the head is oddly bloodless, like the whole film.