Painted characters in various states of completion, and from several works of a French painter who probably lived in the 1930s, unite and go in search of their true colors in the enchanting animated pic “Le Tableau.” Helmer Jean-Francois Laguionie’s consistently enjoyable, inventive and beautifully crafted tale is a color riot suitable for all ages. Across-the-board critical praise and strong word of mouth have turned the initially modestly released pic into one of the winter’s first discoveries. Fests — and not just those aimed at kids — and adventurous niche distribs will want to scribble on the dotted line.
Lola (voiced by Jessica Monceau), who occasionally narrates, is an inquisitive 14-year-old girl who is part of the clan of the Halfies, the characters in a painting that have been left unfinished. She finds herself in the midst of an ongoing battle between the Alldunns, the figures that were completely finished and who claim supremacy, and the Halfies and Sketchies, the latter only poor charcoal outlines who haven’t even received a dash of pigment and oil.
Ramo (Adrien Larmande), an Alldunn who’s head-over-heels in love with Modigliani-esque beauty Claire (Chloe Berthier), a Halfie whose face lacks color, joins Lola, and together they set out to understand the painter’s reasons for creating the different races. The adventurers travel so far beyond the fauvist-colored Alldunns’ castle, and the equally vividly hued surrounding woods, that they arrive at the edge of the painting and actually tumble into the spookily empty artist’s atelier, where they find other paintings containing new worlds to explore.
Along the way they meet new friends, including Plume (Thierry Jahn), a charcoal sketch who’s really just a bunch of lines, and Magenta (Thomas Sagols), a clueless young boy who has been made an unlikely drum major in a war painting. The painter they seek is absent but, in a brilliant twist, speaks to the characters through a Monet-like self-portrait (voiced by the helmer).
Screenwriter Anik Le Ray (“Eleanor’s Secret”) and co-scripter Laguionie don’t skimp on the moralistic overtones but keep the painted worlds and hierarchies and conflicts just abstract enough to be able to function as parables for different situations. The subjugation of the Halfies and Sketchies by the Allduns, for example, could be read as an allegory of race-based enslavement, but also as the conflict of all-knowing parents against still-forming children. Younger viewers, however, will simply side with the underdogs and enjoy the ride.
And what a colorful ride it is. Each painting is rendered in its own unique style, going back to the work of Matisse, Pierre Bonnard and Andre Derain, with Laguionie playing throughout with depth (often created using overlapping surfaces instead of light). Vivid colors, often applied with visible brushstrokes, and inventive decors are a constant feast for the eyes, with a Venice-set carnival sequence especially noteworthy (though a brief run-in with the Grim Reaper is so PG-rated it lacks even the lightest frisson). Color even becomes a major prop in the pic’s rousing finale.
The painter’s workplace is rendered in photo-realistic CGI, while a short live-action sequence ends the film, but these different techniques are all integrated beautifully. Solid voice and sound work complete the package.