RENAISSANCE – DVD review

In the DVD’s accompanying featurette, the filmmakers explain that they were trying to create the noir feel of “Blade Runner” and James Ellroy crime novels in their 2006, black-and-white, animated sci-fi thriller, “Renaissance.” Judging by everything that I saw, they succeeded, if only superficially, in recreating the feel of either, mostly duplicating the look but not quite the substance.

The French filmmakers released their movie to various festivals all over the world and then to limited release in a few countries, but it didn’t get much play. It is essentially making its world debut on DVD. One can understand audiences not exactly going wild for the film. While it looks terrific, it is rather muddled in its plot and fairly mundane in its characterizations.

Christian Volckman directed the movie, but his only previous directorial effort was an eight-minute short called “Maaz.” No recognition, eh? None here, either. Nor had I ever heard of “Renaissance” before. Yet the film had a good-sized budget for an animated feature. I wonder who green-lights these risky projects, or do the governments of some European countries subsidize these things?

In any case, the plot is typical of many sci-fi adventures, with a handsome hero investigating crime in a future totalitarian society. It’s set somewhere in the mid twenty-first century, and the government of France controls everything that anybody does, and spies on everyone everywhere. More important, big business pretty much controls the government; in this case, it’s a cosmetics conglomerate called Avalon, whose motto is “Health, beauty, longevity. We’re on your side for life.” They sell youth and beauty to the populace, at any price.

When one of Avalon’s top researchers in the field of anti-aging goes missing, they demand the government find her. In turn, the government assigns a crack team of investigators to do the job, a team lead by Captain Barthelemy Karas (voiced in the English dub by actor Daniel Craig). The story has Karas going here and there in a rather complex way, looking into the possible kidnapping and, of course, meeting an assortment of bizarre, shady, quirky characters along the way.

Most of it is quite ordinary, and at no point does any of it catch fire or produce much excitement, tension, or suspense. The characters, for all their oddities, are flat and dull, and the plot is clichéd. Worse, there is never the faintest glimmer of humor in the proceedings, making it a long haul for 105 minutes.

Still, what it does have, besides the fine animation discussed below, is a good cast of voices. In addition to Craig (007), there is Romola Garai (“Scoop”) as Ilona Tasuiev, the young woman gone missing; Catherine McCormack (“Spy Game”) as Bislane, Ilona’s older sister; Jonathan Pryce (“Brazil”) as Paul Dellenbach, the head man at Avalon; Ian Holm (“LOTR”) as Dr. Jonas Muller, Ilona’s research supervisor; and Kevork Malikyan (“Flight of the Phoenix”) as Farfella, a big-time crime boss who takes great baths.

Although these characters are well voiced, they are one-dimensional personalities. We don’t even get to know Karas, the main character very well, except to learn that he grew up the hard way in the Casbah. How can we feel any sympathy for people about whom we know nothing?

I suppose when you think about it, the plot of any old noir thriller is muddled, so maybe that is what these filmmakers were after, something the audience would have a hard time following. If that was, indeed, their intent, they succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. If I hadn’t been taking notes, I would have given up on the plot about a third of the way into the movie. To liven things up, the film carries an R rating, mostly for language, nudity, and sex. Well, this is a French film after all, cartoon or no.

Where the film succeeds, however, is in its look. It is done up in conventional 2D animation, but it has the appearance and feel of a black-and-white graphic novel. Visually, the animation is quite striking, detailed and realistic on the one hand, stimulating and melodramatic on the other. For a good ten or fifteen minutes it is fascinating just to watch this film and listen to its often spectacular sound and haunting musical track. But, unfortunately, it was not enough carry this viewer through to the end with any interest. The routine plot and bland characters never allowed for that.

Like so many filmmakers, the people who made “Renaissance” seem to have started with a concept and forgotten a story. The movie radiates a dark, eerie, mysterious, otherworldly quality, which is all to the good, yet it isn’t enough to sustain over an hour and an half of story. It doesn’t do much beyond catching the eye and ear with its stylish graphics and arresting sonics.

Video:
Most everything about the video reproduction is as good as one could expect it to be in standard definition. The screen size measures across my screen at about 2.16:1, very near its original 2.35:1 theatrical ratio, give or take some overscanning; your size will vary. More important, BV’s high bit rate, anamorphic transfer provides plenty of contrast to show off the movie’s black-and-white photography. Indeed, the contrasts are so high, the whites so white, and the black levels so deep, the image may look too bright, wiping out some inner detailing. We also get an exceptionally clean picture, which helps to highlight the vividness of the imaging.

Audio:
In addition, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is quite impressive. It projects a wide stereo spread and a maintains a productive use of the surrounds, both for music and for voices and effects like rain, wind, and thunder. What’s more, the bass is quite deep and the dynamics extremely wide, giving you a sound that will easily shake your listening room.

Extras:
Not a lot here. The main bonus item is a twenty-six-minute, behind-the-scenes featurette, “The Making of Renaissance,” which plays like most such making-of featurettes; it works well enough. Beyond that, there are sixteen scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at five other Buena Vista products; English and French spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
Maybe I just watch more movies than most other folks so I notice these things, but I can’t help wondering why it is that so many movies spend so much money on great casts, outstanding technical qualities, beautiful production values, and the like, without giving much thought to the script. “Renaissance” looks terrific, but it suffers mightily from a lack of originality in its plot and characters, both of which are uninspiring. Well, it is a cartoon, and maybe audiences won’t mind that it plays like a cartoon as well.

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