Does Leonardo da Vinci need 3D? Maybe if he were the nimble-footed centerpiece of a videogame like “Assassin’s Creed,” but certainly not as conceived in Julian Jones’ unnecessary “Inside the Mind of Leonardo in 3D.” Restricting all dialogue to Leonardo’s own words, jotted down in his famously sprawling notebooks, the documentary envisions the groundbreaking visionary as a voracious polymath (true) while giving shockingly short shrift to the man as artist. Animating his drawings makes him more child’s cartoonist than incomparable draughtsman, and Peter Capaldi’s modern-dress impersonation has a gratuitously histrionic intensity. Stereoscopic treatment aside, a theatrical release seems beside the point, since this sort of thing is best consumed on presenter History Films’ broadcasts.
Biographical information is reduced here to the briefest of lines written out onscreen, establishing Leonardo’s illegitimacy, his Tuscan roots, and his first known artwork, assisting his teacher Verrocchio in a painting of “The Baptism of Christ.” Jones and co-scribe Nick Dear regurgitate the usual embellished mythology, courtesy of Giorgio Vasari, of Verrocchio being so humbled by his pupil’s gifts that he abandoned painting altogether — but in any event, viewers wanting even the merest of insights into the artistic world of 15th-century Florence should look elsewhere.
Instead, the superficial documentary’s focus is on Leonardo as engineer and observer of nature. Attractive shots of a falcon, accompanied by Capaldi’s theatrical recitation of Leonardo’s words about birds and flight, logically lead to images of the artist’s drawings of wings, made to “come alive” via 3D animation. Practically none of his creations are allowed to just “be”: Instead their backgrounds are turned into roiling smoke, their rapid, masterly lines extended and contracted so the images move. Leonardo, whose genius with pen and ink reproduced the sensation of movement via drawings of water, projectiles, even clouds, apparently is still too static for the movies and needs the animator’s touch.
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Viewers will be forgiven for thinking that Leonardo left Florence because of a sodomy charge — a not uncommon accusation in the period, though not the cause for the artist’s move to Milan. The documentary spends a fair amount of time on his unrealized project for a monumental equestrian statue of the local ruler, yet the reason for expending so much footage on smelting and practically zero on “The Last Supper” is likely because a mural is just a mural, whereas a discussion of molten bronze allows Jones to shoot demonic-looking images in a foundry.
Leonardo’s famed “sfumato” technique is ignored, his relationship with pupil Melzi overlooked, and his move to France completely passed over. The “Mona Lisa” gets tossed in almost as an afterthought, though other portraits, such as the sublime “Lady With an Ermine,” aren’t mentioned at all. Admittedly, this is meant to be “inside the mind of Leonardo,” yet apart from the impression of a genius suffering from OCD, viewers are unlikely to come away with a firmer grasp of the man or his originality, and could learn more from one of the numerous touring exhibitions in which Leonardo’s drawings form the basis for models of wings, helicopters and other “infernal machines.” At least Jones avoids the maddeningly common habit of referring to him as “da Vinci,” which is sort of like calling Cher “of El Centro.”
Animation is perfectly respectable, and viewing it in 2D is unlikely to compromise the effect. Scenes with Capaldi are confined to an artfully aged studio wall, against which he lounges on a distressed armchair for no particular reason (perhaps that’s what geniuses do, especially when budgets are tight). Musical choices are inoffensive if odd, especially the incongruous use of an English-lingo indie song with a refrain about radiation.