Creative, colorful, and unexpectedly wise, “The Painting” is the latest offshore animation to show to kids burned out on computer-generated Hollywood toons. It’s another gift from GKIDS, the US distributor of films like “Azur and Asmar,” “Sita Sings the Blues,” and “The Secret of Kells,” and it tells a classic quest story with unexpected twists.
For one thing, most of the action takes place inside a dusty painting hanging on an artist’s studio wall. At first glance, it’s just a landscape with castle, but as the camera moves in, we discover a busy, stratified society of inhabitants. The ruling Alldunns, sniffy and superior, are finished creations painted in stately hues, while the Halfies are missing swatches of color and are relegated to living in the castle gardens. At the bottom of this caste system are the Sketchies, straggly line drawings chased for sport and treated cruelly by the Alldunns.
Slightly over-plotted, “The Painting” begins in Romeo-and-Juliet territory, with a sensitive Alldunn named Ramo (voiced by Michael Sinterniklass in this well-done English-language dub of the original, “Le Tableau”) in love with a Halfie named Claire (Eden Riegel) — she looks like the Mona Lisa by way of Modigliani. Jean-Francois Laguionie’s film really takes flight, though, when Ramo ventures forth with Claire’s adventurous best friend Lola (Kamali Minter) and a grumpy Sketchie named Quill (Vinnie Penna) to find the Painter and ask him why he left his work unfinished. To do that, they have to leave the painting.
The scene where they do so — emerging into a photo-realistic CGI atelier of other artworks, each alive — is a wonder. There’s a half-nude odalisque (Mary Elizabeth McGlynn), a cheery Harlequin (Colleen O’Shaughnessey), and a self-portrait of the painter himself (Steve Blum). There’s also a little drummer boy (Spike Spencer), rescued from a battle painting, who joins the troupe on their search for the great Creator.
It’s obviously not a stretch to find theological meanings in this story, but “The Painting” wears them lightly, laying on just enough profundity to engage savvy viewers between the ages of, say, 6 and 12. You’re more caught up in the personalities of the travelers, their trek across a strange and marvelous universe, and the dazzling post-Impressionist colors and shapes wielded by Laguionie and his animators. There are shards of Chagall, moments of Matisse, and a rapturous carnival sequence in a painted Venice that has the surreal overstuffed whimsy of a Hayao Miyazaki film.
Watching “The Painting,” you may be reminded of much-loved books and movies from your own childhood: The “Oz” and “Narnia” series, “The Phantom Tollbooth,” “The Point.” Without getting overtly religious, Laguionie brings a viewer gently up to the edge of some very large ideas and then, in a final scene that has the power to lift the hairs on your head, brings Lola the seeker to a moment of revelation and light. And then it has the imagination to go beyond that.
Oh, you and the kids will have lots to talk about on the drive home. Once your eyeballs have stopped shimmering.