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A true merger of art and multiple forms used to transform biographical facts

Photo: Vincent van Gogh and his paintings come to life in new movie ‘Loving Vincent’

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Regular readers are  probably familiar with my bias against animated features. I am firmly and decidedly against the prevailing notion that we need more movies about talking animals or inanimate objects that prance about to the latest pop tunes and prattle on about trending topics in social media feeds. Maybe it’s a function of having children who are now in high school and college, but I’m done with talking dogs and cars, just like I was glad when my oldest daughter finally graduated from her “Twilight” phase. Sparkly vampires walking around in the daytime should not exist either, not even in someone’s imagination.

Based on this logic, you would have to assume that I never watch animated films, which is generally true. I make exceptions, of course, for the Pixar movies I have to cover in one outlet or another, which occasionally rise above their family-friendly aims to speak to greater universal experiences and aspirations (although they seem to always be locked in some kind of pitched internal battle).

And then there are the whip smart features that come from outside the U.S. like Academy Award nominees, “A Cat in Paris” (from directors Jean-Loup Felicoli and Alain Gagnol), and “Chico & Rita” (from Fernando Trueba, Tono Errando and Javier Mariscal), or “Extraordinary Tales,” the inspired adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe, which featured the likes of Sir Christopher Lee, Bela Lugosi, Roger Corman, and Guillermo del Toro (I mean, come on, who wouldn’t want to see that collection of talent explore the macabre world of Poe). In these instances, the animation creates opportunities to push certain boundaries—physical and expressive capabilities—that would be limited in the live action format. Too often, we, as an audience, have been forced to accept animated stories as mere cartoons, something not suitable for adult consumption, unless it strays into the truly “mature” realm.

Which is what makes “Loving Vincent,” the new film from Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, such a revolutionary enterprise. The writer-directors dare to present the rather conventional tale of Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), the disaffected son of a postman, commissioned by his father to hand deliver a letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo, a year after the artist’s death. Armand’s journey becomes more complicated once he realizes that Theo is no longer alive either and so, he must find a suitable recipient, which means he must delve into the last days of van Gogh and those closest to him.

“Loving Vincent” is an emotional and spiritual mystery of sorts, an existential examination into a life and the art that sprang from a truly tragic figure. It would have been easy for Kobiela and Welchman to offer this up in a straightforward live action feature; not just simple and conventional, but the obvious choice, and it could have been a fascinating and impactful film. But, the pair dared to look beyond the narrative facts to the greater challenge of setting up a critical dialogue between van Gogh’s life and his work. To meaningfully engage with his art required an immersion in his paintings, deeper than merely studying his pieces as static frames on a wall.

So, they used animation to capture the thrilling movement of oil paintings. There are haunting reflections of van Gogh’s famous masterworks in the film, but what Kobiela and Welchman have done is show us how van Gogh may have seen everyday life, where each and every blade of grass or fabric or pinpoint of light shimmers as it attracts the eye. The visual panels here mimic the feel that 3D movies long to evoke, that rush of kinetic energy through space, which tricks us into wanting to interact with what is only a flat surface. Much like James Cameron’s rich and luscious world in “Avatar,” the world of “Loving Vincent” is so tactile, it overpowers the narrative, making us momentarily forget the mundane details of plot and action. We care only to see and feel the ephemeral images. Even the black and white renderings of memory take on a shape and cloudy haze that approximates something about our understanding of the past that we can’t quite articulate.

Art is a grand experiment, and “Loving Vincent” reminds us that animation is a grand and complex language.

Rating: PG-13; Grade: A