Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Pretty dystopia in urban utopia

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Robin Wright in the animated film The Congress.
Robin Wright in the animated film The Congress.

I saw bad things happen to animated seahorses twice during the NZ International Film Festival. Perhaps seahorses in sketches are the new canaries in the coalmine. When one of nature's more whimsical creatures carks it, clearly everyone else onscreen is also in trouble.

Also, these cartoons aren't for kids. The festival animations I saw - even those not sacrificing seahorses - showed beautiful nightmares. You'd never want to live in these dystopias but they are very, very pretty to watch from the safety of the cinema, or even in your own home: I recommend watching the festival's Spanish short Bendito Machine IV - Fuel the Machines for free on Vimeo, online.

In stunning style inspired by Indonesian shadow puppets (Wayang Kulit), Bendito shows intricate black silhouettes of nature, architecture and transport against rich colour backgrounds, as the protagonist travels left to right across the screen from one scene to the next, like he's moving through a computer game.

His civilisation matches naif creature carvings with Viking-prowed ships and colossal Greek statues, but the masterful visual result looks less historical mix'n'match than single-minded for some terrible purpose.

In contrast to the relentless but unhurried pace and strict paper-cut aesthetics of Bendito, the multiple visual styles of The Boy and the World are exuberant.

Smudged pastel crayon gives way to pencil, paint and collage, as happy jungle chaos and synaesthesia give way to system regimentation when the boy travels through a clothing supply chain.

We've been cheated: France's Le Tableau (shown at the 2012 film festival) comes close but black-outlined Disney and clean Pixar have never looked as interesting as this Brazilian feature. Not even wonderful, jeopardised Studio Ghibli is as stylistically abundant. (I was going to go to The Tale of Princess Kaguya but the trailer put me off: Why do Ghibli's characters all have to keep their mouths open in surprise the entire time?)

In contrast, the creative, chemical hallucinations in The Congress deliberately ape simplistic, wrinkle-free Looney Tunes' style in an ageless play-world for adults.

Cleverly, it is both unbounded and claustrophobic: any cartoon image is possible, but you know that Robin Wright - played by Robin Wright - really just wants to get out of this animated Matrix and back to the real world.

Of course, if people onscreen are in trouble, then we're really in trouble too; these animated worlds are actually our own, reflected in dazzling, fragmented, coloured disco balls.

Bendito is bothered by our resource plunder and pollution, The Congress is concerned with our delusion and alienation, and The Boy worries about both, since they are linked.

The animations nicely portray the problems with rampant, globalised capitalism, but the "technology is bad, getting back to nature is good" metanarrative of Bendito and The Boy is far too crude, and no longer helpful. We can't all live in the country any more - it would be unsustainable.

Cities, with their economies of scale, must be where we're "saved", and the distinction between collective and private technology is important. Urban utopia - animate that.

- NZ Herald

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