Jean-François Laguionie’s The Painting attempts to tackle issues of race, religion, and moral values while also providing an intro to art history, all within a 76-minute narrative aimed at children. The animated film’s aesthetic employs expressionism, realism, and cubism, but the morality plays are layered on as thickly and haphazardly as a toddler’s finger painting. The story opens by describing the social segregations of the inhabitants of a painting: the Allduns, who’ve been drawn in full, are at the top of the social ladder; the Halfies, all incompletely colored, are forbidden from entering the Allduns’ castle; and the Sketchies, rendered only as outlines, are untouchables routinely hunted down by the Allduns. Circumstances in this painterly world force a member of each caste to go journeying through a forbidden forest to locate their painter-creator and ask why he made them this way, and if he will ever finish his work.
There’s a ghastly, off-putting emptiness to The Painting’s computer-animated renderings, with the faces of the Allduns looking like creepy masks. More problematic is that the narrative’s rigid formula doesn’t allow for an open-ended resolution, with a pat and questionable conclusion forcing the fable to a close: When the Sketchies and Halfies start to paint themselves in, they earn the Allduns’ acceptance by passing as part of their “race.” The film shares striking similarities in plot and message with Fred Wolf’s 1971 animated interpretation of Harry Nilsson’s concept album The Point, but Wolf pulled against moralistic fuddy-duddiness with dry wit, imaginative characters, and an aesthetic that’s somewhere between UPA animation and an acid trip. Languionie’s film, on the other hand, tries to glide by on its good intentions and its Art History 101 conceit alone, and it’s just not enough.