French animated film The Painting offers viewers non-burdensome but thought-provoking lessons in art, theology, and philosophy.

It seems I’ve become obsessed with French animation. Over the last few years I’ve reviewed The Rabbi’s Cat, A Cat in Paris, The Illusionist, and A Town Called Panic, which is actually Belgian but (with apologies to my Flemish and Walloon readers) may as well be French. Admittedly, there was that time I raved about Toy Story 3, but surely that’s the exception that proves the rule, right?

Opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, May 24, The Painting (Le Tableau) is the latest in this lengthening list of Francophone features. Written and directed by Jean-François Laguionie, it’s a little less droll and a wee bit darker than the aforementioned films, but will still appeal to inquisitive youngsters and parents desperate to avoid another fart-joke-infested kids’ movie.

Taking place within an unfinished painting, the film’s characters — inhabitants of said painting — live a somewhat narrow existence. With little to do and nowhere to go, they’ve developed an insidious social pecking order, with the ‘all-dones’ (completed figures) at the top of the heap, the ‘halfies’ (almost, but not quite, completed figures) beneath them, and the ‘sketchies’ (black and white outlines of figures in the earliest stages of creation) filling the role of society’s untouchables.

Painted in muted pastels, the ‘all-dones’ live in a glorious chateau, endlessly partying and talking disdainfully of their social inferiors. Their cosmology imagines them as the chosen ones selected by God to rule his or her world, with the inferior ‘halfies’ consigned to shacks at the edge of the forbidden forest that borders the painting’s frame. As for the ‘sketchies’, they’re little more than subhuman beings best ignored or utilized as forced labor.

Into each stratified society, however, a little cross-class discord must fall. It’s represented here by Ramo and Claire, a Romeo and Juliet-style couple whose love dare not speak its name: Ramo is an ‘all-done’; Claire a ‘halfie’ whose face the painter has left palest white. Meeting in the no-man’s land between chateau and forest for canoodling sessions, the lovers are held in disdain by ‘all-dones’ and ‘halfies’ alike.

Emboldened by his love for Claire, Ramo confronts his fellow ‘all-dones’ – including leader The Great Chandelier and his menacing minion Greymorgan – with some difficult questions: how can the ‘all-dones’ be sure they understand their creator’s intent? And what might happen if s/he were to return and complete the painting?

A great adventure in the forbidden forest and the strange lands beyond ensues, with Ramo, Claire’s ‘halfie’ friend Lola, and a ‘sketchie’ named Quill trekking beyond the frame in search of enlightenment. Making common cause with other works of art in the painter’s workshop, Ramo and friends return to the chateau bearing gifts that threaten to shake The Painting’s established order to its very core.

Incorporating traditional flat animation with three-dimensional computer-generated work and live action, The Painting offers viewers non-burdensome but thought-provoking lessons in art, theology, and philosophy. It’s well suited for children five and above, though there are a few disturbing moments – most notably, the apparent murder of a ‘sketchie’ at the hands of two ‘all-dones’ – that may upset more sensitive youngsters. Lovely to look at and featuring a wonderful orchestral score by Pascal le Pennec, The Painter will probably earn an Academy Award nomination in 2014, ultimately losing to either The Croods or Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more Big Screen Berkeley reviews here.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...