Future Imperfect

Renaissance is black and white and a little dead all over

The animated feature has become the most tiresome dish available in the googolplex buffet line — more so than even the mopey art-house offering in which bad things happen to good people while string sections and Elliott Smith sound-alikes douse the soundtrack with dollops of calamity and sorrow. You can't tell one cartoon from the next; really, till the 3-year-old living in my house mentioned how badly he wanted to see Open Season did I realize he wasn't still talking about Over the Hedge. No wonder The Ant Bully got pantsed at the box office; it was perfectly lovely, but even a preschooler can suffer burnout when exposed to too much of the same ol' same ol' after a while. That's how the Wiggles got replaced by the Flaming Lips around my house.

So, yeah, it's exciting when something like Renaissancecomes along, promising to reinvent an increasingly stale medium. It has this much going for it: You have never seen anything like Christian Volckman's film, which spent some six years cooking in the lab before being unleashed upon European audiences earlier this year (to ho-hum reaction). Not since, oh, Toy Story (or, to keep the French connection intact, The Triplets of Belleville) could you say as much about the animated film. Pixar seized the form and refashioned it in its polished, pristine image, and only with the sputtering Cars did the formula finally go sour. Volckman, in his attempts to make a big-screen comic book sans recognizable faces, has stripped down and amped up the procedure: His set-in-the-future sci-fi police procedural is entirely monochromatic, all black-and-white, save for a brief burst of color that comes on like a Technicolor hurricane just when you need some relief from the bland pizzazz. It's film noir, with too much noir for its own good.

For a little while, it's dazzling. Then it's dizzying. Then it's just kind of ... wearying. That's not because it's entirely in black-and-white; so, too, was Sin City, whose look Volckman and his team began appropriating well before Robert Rodriguez began adapting Frank Miller's comic book series with familiar faces pulling their punches in front of green screens. There's just something terribly, tragically dull about Renaissance, which is less a plotted movie than a meticulously made demo reel for "motion capture," a method of animation (used on The Polar Expressand Monster House) that's been reinvented for this impressive and wholly stultifying endeavor. Essentially, a filmmaker directs actual people whose images are then shipped to a computer, where a team of animators spends years transforming humans into cartoon characters. Here, Volckman turns people into ink blotters, more or less; you don't watch these characters so much as interpret them, which is about as exciting as the thing gets.

Here we are halfway through this review, and thus far there's no mention of plot. That's because the story, a mash-up of elements lifted from Blade Runner and Minority Report and other sci-fi actioners dealing with genetic engineering, was kept decidedly threadbare in order to keep the audience engaged in a movie whose look is demanding enough on the eyeballs. It's confusing trying to keep track of people whose faces are various whiter shades of pale.

But one can't knock the look; the design of Paris in 2054 is easily the most compelling thing about Renaissance. This future city looks much the same as it does today, but the visual effects crew has added some remarkably nifty and realistic touches. The Metro, for instance, has a bulletproof glass ceiling through which passers-by can watch the trains rumbling in and out of the station. It comes in handy during chase scenes; imagine being able to track your prey without being able to stop him, which is a most frustrating proposition for cops in this movie.

Volckman likes to compare the set design to Metropolis and Blade Runner — sure, and every band in the world would like to be compared to the Beatles and Bob Dylan, but saying it doesn't make it so. His picture is merely a black-and-white vessel waiting for someone to give it shades of depth. What's the movie about? For starters, it's about 60 minutes too long, because once you're introduced to the plot, it's mostly filler with little killer, no matter how many people wind up dead.

A cop named Karas (voiced by James Bond himself, Daniel Craig, who sounds so uninterested you worry that his was a one-take taping) is investigating the disappearance of a woman named Ilona (Romola Garai), a scientist involved in genetic research at a pharmaceutical company called Avalon, which is run by the cacklingly sinister Dellenbach (Jonathan Pryce). Seems Ilona was working on a formula to cure the premature aging disorder known as progeria, and her sister, Bislane (Catherine McCormack), may likewise be involved. But of course, there's more to the story — something to do with immortality, which comes in handy when you're watching a movie that seems to go on forever.

 
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