Questions of social stratification, class injustice, racism, and existential uncertainty abound in Jean-Francois Laguionie’s animated feature Le tableau (The Painting),a children’s film – yes, that’s right – whose plain, unadorned title belies the artistic beauty that saturates each and every one of its 76 minutes.
While not exactly perfect, Le tableau is practically overflowing with charm and personality, more than enough to ensnare the hearts of adults and kids alike. The film is set within the world of an idyllic, but incomplete painting, whose painter has long since abandoned his hapless creations. In his absence, a power structure emerges, dominated by the fully colored, finished characters (the “All-Dones”) who subjugate the near-complete characters (the “Halfies”), and the bare-bones, near-invisible ones (the “Sketchies”), relegating them to a segregated and hopeless existence.
However, when a Halfie, a Sketchie and an altruistic All-Done unwittingly find a way to leave their painting, they undertake a journey to meet their version of God, and along the way, learn the value of equality and acceptance, all told in a story that is as colourful as it is warm and fuzzy.
And make no mistake about it. Le tableau is one of those rare pieces of work that is truly experienced as both film and painting. Laguionie embraces the influences of Fauvism and its pioneers, such as Henri Matisse, in a successful attempt to recapture the artistic movements that defined his youth in 1940s France.
But regardless of your background in art history, it is so easy to fall in love with this lovingly depicted world that’s filled with soft, vibrant colours that vary from scene to scene. Lush greens fill the Halfies’ forest home, while deep, vivid oranges suffuse one of the film’s best moments in a painting of Venetian Carnival.
And yet one would be remiss to single out any one aspect of the animation because it’s really the entire thing at once – every flower petal, every gust of wind – that makes this film such a joy to behold. A few minutes into watching Le tableau, one feels as though they are expriencing a world that is being drawn to life to life before their very eyes by the painter that helps give the film its name.
Indeed, the scenery is so breathtaking that it is easy to miss the story flaws that mar this otherwise excellent experience. The main problem is that at times it is unclear what exactly this film wants to be, oscillating uncomfortably between a meditation on class divisions, a Romeo-and-Juliet-esque love story, and an existential quest to meet one’s maker. Though each plotline contains some individually poignant moments (a Sketchie’s devotion to his lost friend skillfully walks the fine line between heartbreaking and heartwarming), none of them are given enough screen time to gather steam and develop, thus depriving the film of much of its narrative thrust. Indeed, all three stories resolve themselves without much help from the protagonists, instead resorting to good old deus ex machina to help give the film a friendly push towards its conclusion.
All that being said, the story does raise some poignant questions about the nature of existence, including the difficulty in confronting a God who has condemned his creations to a life of squalor, and whether or not its truly possible to transcend class barriers. While these themes will provide plenty of food for thought for older viewers and parents, children will derive joy from simply rooting for the lovable characters who populate the world of its story.
This film may indeed incite a classic style-versus-substance debate, but the fact is that the world of Le tableau is simply a joy to behold and experience. In this writer’s humble opinion, the greatest achievement that a children’s film can lay claim to is the ability to make kids of its entire audience. In this regard, the film succeeds with flying colours.
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