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Renaissance

Onyx/Millimages/Miramax Films (March 15 2006), Miramax Home Entertainment (July 24 2007), single disc, 105 mins plus supplement, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 (English dub and original French track), Rated R for violent images, sexuality, nudity and language, Retail: $29.99

Storyboard:

In a black-than-black CGI noir Paris of 2054, detective Barthelemy Karas (voice of new James Bond Daniel Craig) is on the trail of a missing girl and mysterious scientist, but becomes embroiled in a plot far beyond anything he could have imagined. Slowly, the corruption and cover up of the giant, all encompassing Avalon Corporation comes to light, where what started as a cure for disease becomes a search for immortality…

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The Sweatbox Review:

I am not, frankly, a big fan of motion-capture, and I find that most animation aficionados agree. When its done well, as with Gollum or King Kong, it is usually augmented with keyframed poses, or hand-tweaked movements. The best motion-capture is mo-cap used as reference, just as rotoscoping should be used for reference and not for tracing. Rotoscoped footage in traditional animation looks stilted and lacks life – the very thing “animation” should be striving to add. Motion-capture is the modern-day, CGI variation: unless it is used sparingly and by those who really know what they are doing, the results will be more Barbie video premiere than Peter Jackson epic.

Unfortunately, most low-budget producers can’t see the difference and take to this easy – and cheap – option to churn out animated titles by the truckload. Good for their bottom lines (at least we assume) but bad for the tired out audiences who have to sit through them. As such, I’ve been very wary when heading anywhere near a mo-capped feature: The Polar Express (despite the fancy-schmancy “performance-capture” moniker), to pick on the first major proponent of the technology, took us on a soulless journey, and even the superior Monster House could only stand to rest on its laurels courtesy of witty direction and an original take on an old story rather than any innovations with the visuals.

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The opposite could be said when I ventured into Japanese manga territory with the stunning looking Appleseed — here was animation undeniably captured by having its cast dressed up in those crazy dotted outfits, but that looked smooth and more “animated”. The trick here was the cel-shading effect, a way for the computer to “paint” the characters as we would be accustomed to seeing in a traditionally animated film but with all the possibilities of three-dimensional movement. The result was some pretty amazing imagery, but the habitually convoluted anime plot and hard-core soundtrack put the kind of barriers in place of my enjoyment that are usually only restricted to the lack of tolerance for the staccato visuals often associated in the genre, for me.

And now we come to Renaissance, one of a growing breed of internationally animated pictures, and one more specifically from the artistic capital of the world, France. The interesting points to pick out here is that the film is an English reworking of its native French original, shot in motion-capture and cel-shaded not to look like a cartoon, but to look like the hard inked lines of a black and white comic book. There’s no grayscale in the Renaissance world of 2054 Paris. It’s all black, and white. Given an extremely limited theatrical run in late 2006, I caught the trailer and wasn’t too impressed by the video game qualities of the visuals. Give that one a miss, I thought at the time. After all, how good could it be…?

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The opening credits are principally inviting, like DNA code floating or swimming through space, and I was soon dragged in, only for the elaborate video game visuals to start cropping up. If Renaissance had tried to convince in fully lit color, the mo-cap would have looked terrible, but the black/white shadowing helps cover up not just a lot but all of the drawbacks to the technology, giving it a truly unique look. As such, movement is as fluid and realistic as it comes, through there’s still the oddly stilted and “rotoscoped” look of the process to contend with, not helped by again trying to apply the captured data directly to human characters. The result is too fluid, hyper realistic, and so ultimately not very real at all.

Everything seems to flow in a way that is “lyrical”, even for this stylised world, resulting in some actions that feel too slow and not real enough, even though they should read that way, and that one simply can’t buy into. The b/w shading does cover things somewhat, and really does help in other places, especially bringing much needed life to the facial expressions. Chiefly impressive are the stunningly rendered locations, backgrounds and fantastic camerawork: though Christian Volckman’s direction isn’t anything groundbreaking, Renaissance is all about the style, which it has in spades. The harsh lighting is a great contributor here, but its not always best applied. Sometimes cel shadows come and go on faces and clothes, like old-school pops, which could have benefited from more judicious tweaking and eliminating in the pursuit of a smoother end product.

The black/white approach, as hard lined as linocut prints, is certainly attention grabbing, but I can’t decide if color would have been more striking in a film about youth and beauty. After enjoying the color-infused animation sequence found in the first Kill Bill, I wondered if Renaissance might not have benefited from a retro, muted color style where vibrant color could be more of a statement. A couple of shots do add a splash of color, to highlight an unhinged mind in this light and dark world, but I’m not sure they make, or are even appropriate for, the required emotional impact. Other visual flourishes include a fair few nice dissolves, especially one of a snowfall blending into the running water of a shower.

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The plot is suitably labyrinthine, though the set up isn’t especially clearly mapped out, with the heavy lighting not helping being able to distinguish characters from one another early on. But eventually we slide into basic sci-fi noir: mysterious identities, femme fatales, missing people, a detective’s story; all set in a dystopian future world full of grit: with its sexual imagery and swearing, this ain’t no kids toon. Themes of corruption, big conglomerates watching – and protecting at any cost – their bottom line, and emotional blackmail are explored, though not to any great deal: there’s always the feeling that we’ve been here before. Blade Runner primarily comes to mind, especially in the way society is depicted with financial considerations deciding how far up the food chain one sits, both figuratively and literally speaking: it’s no mistake that those on a healthy income live in cleaner, taller buildings, with the ridiculously luxurious Avalon topping them all and flagrantly displaying all the trappings of power.

I noted nods toward Blade Runner mostly, and only cursory glances towards the likes of Sin City, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly, all of which have been name-checked in the publicity as points of reference. Fans of those films may well find things to stimulate them in Renaissance, but I’d especially endorse this to fans of The Matrix sequels, particularly Reloaded, with which it feels tonally related. There’s quite a bit of The Matrix in here actually; in the designs too, that also recall the granddaddy of them all, Tron, though it’s especially the work of Nicholas Dodd’s techno-tinged orchestral score which most evokes the fabricated world of Neo, Trinity, Morpheus and Agent Smith.

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Moving on to the rest of the soundtrack, and the English-language dub is not bad, but hampered by a mostly British cast that sound like they’re putting on an amateur dramatics production. I puzzled to work out, too, if Renaissance was animated in French or English – certainly most shots look dead on sync with the English track while others fit the French tongue more clearly. If it was shot “in English” – and I’ll assume it was – then the French dubbing has been exceptionally well handled, but their British counterparts haven’t been particularly well directed, coming over as sounding intentionally “acted” as opposed to living and feeling their characters out.

It’s a curios conundrum: all seem well enough cast, except Jonathan Pryce, whose character is just too young-looking (whatever the backstory and intent) to fit the voice whom we usually associate it with. Sam Neill would have perhaps been a better match, though there is some amusement to be found in hearing Pryce as the kind of corporate monster he was wrestling with in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil all those years ago. Big catch Craig is by turns convincing and not as good as he’s been throughout his career, particularly in Munich or as the current 007, where most will know his name from Casino Royale and which undoubtedly has given his name star billing. Maybe because he’s acting with voice only, but this is close to being another case of above the line superstars not delivering as well as good, vocally experienced performers. To be fair, Craig fits the role as well as anyone probably could have, so I’ll chalk this up again to lacklustre English dub direction.

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With the Weinsteins now out of control at Miramax, the division has dramatically cut back on the number of edits they make to foreign language films. Time was when the Weinstein Miramax would have chopped a few minutes out of this film and probably end up making the plot more incomprehensible in their attempts to simplify it for the US audience. Thankfully, the new guys running the unit have become accustomed to letting their acquisitions speak for themselves, which has some neat knock-on effects: for one, the movie is left intact, just as director Volckman intended; another is a circumstances of the DVD format: multiple audio tracks.

With discs routinely including subtitles and dubs in French and Spanish for our friends north and south of the United States, we’re in great luck with Renaissance. Since there have been no edits to the feature, this allows for the film’s true French track to be included intact. Though the US credits don’t list the original Gallic vocal talents, it’s well worth running the movie again, with the optional English subtitles, to grasp Volckman’s intentions. A rare treat to have both tracks and options available to us, this shows what a persuasive language French actually is, and it compares favorably to the Daniel Craig-headed dub, with more of a sense of ambience.

While I really wanted to enjoy Renaissance, and it seemed to push all the right buttons in comparison to the future noir/cyberpunk films I’ve very much enjoyed in the past (the aforementioned Blade Runner, Minority Report, Tron, etc), the film just didn’t grab me strong enough, and it has to be said that was mainly down to the animation (not, note, the lighting or design, which continued to hold interest). Exciting are a well staged car and on-foot chase, which again owes much to The Matrix Reloaded, a suspenseful break-in and information retrieval, with a cool search and kill in the pitch black, and a final escape which attempts something profound but struggles to get there. Ultimately, Renaissance lacks this truly disturbing closing twist that the story has been aiming for all along, and really needs to resolve on.

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The coldness of the harsh light and dark cinematography leaves us emotionally cool to the characters, and though interest piques and lowers wildly throughout, there’s never enough time during the episodic scene construction to fully connect with the almost non-existent emotional core. Although executive producer Jake Eberts has been involved in many other, much more light hearted animation projects over the years (from Richard Williams’ ill-fated The Thief And The Cobbler, James And The Giant Peach and Chicken Run to, um, the Magic Roundabout’s American catastrophe Doogal), the result here is a movie that feels like one of those cool-but-lacking experimental flicks one might come across on late night television. In that light, it works, but it doesn’t have the chops for going out as a big, widescreen, theatrical movie, nor the ideas to see it through and make it as satisfying as its nearest equivalent, Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly. While it deserves an outside chance of becoming a cult classic in years to come, I’m afraid that Renaissance is just too colorless to make a lasting impression.

Is This Thing Loaded?

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The disc’s main menu is pretty nifty, animated with not just scenes from the movie, but various characters sliding in and out behind the options. Renaissance itself got a pretty bad deal on its October US release, being so heavily limited that only a handful of people must have been able to catch it. What’s surprising is that it came out around all the hoopla that surrounded Craig’s debut as James Bond, so one would have thought more would have been made of this and been promoted as a consequence.

As such, we’re presented with just one offering, though The Making Of Renaissance documentary manages to cover a lot of ground. Uniquely focusing on the original Gallic language version, the 26-minute French television piece leans on interviews with the filmmakers to explain how they felt these kinds of movies had always been set in the same sci-fi cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York, and that they wanted to be different with their setting and eventually chose their native Paris.

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In the story and design, I’m happy to see them openly pay the debt to Blade Runner, as fans of that genre of films themselves, and also acknowledged are the crime stories of James Ellroy, from which they gained inspiration. Nicholas Dodd’s music gets some space, but there’s nothing on the English voice cast or dubbing processes. With a look at the rigs built especially for the shooting, if nothing else this is a good run through of the motion capture process (the movie’s credits list the “technical support” of major contributor IBM) behind the film, whose origins are revealed to lie in a 1997 short film, Maaz, that combined live-action actors in a CG world, much like the feature Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow.

While it would have been fantastic to see more than the few seconds of Maaz on the disc (early specs promised this full short and production galleries), the documentary does a good job of providing a fair appraisal of the shoot. Presented from a converted PAL master in letterboxed 4:3, and with some neat black and white shots that replicate the look of the final film, the featurette shows clearly that Christian and Co are quite intensely searching for perfection between various technologies and processes, and one of them talks of there not ever being anything like Renaissance again. I hope differently, and encourage a refinement of the methods to see what they come up with next.

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The Renaissance disc, coming as it does from the Buena Vista stable who never let an opportunity to sell you something slip by, starts with the usual selection of coming soons and also availables, here being The Invisible, The Hoax, The Lookout (sounds like the set up for a joke) and Neverwas, none of which particularly look like “must sees”. A generic trailer, announcing the Buena Vista collection of Roger Corman releases, is much more fun, with such “classic” titles as Death Race 2000 and Piranha in the mix.

Being originally a French film, of course, it should be pointed out that Renaissance gets the deluxe treatment there and for French speaking fans, with a choice of three disc releases: a single (with additional commentary not present here), two-disc (with even more commentaries, documentaries and more), and a gift set (with the two-disc and an “art of” book reprint in custom packaging). For those who find themselves well drawn into 2054, these are all snazzy, but Miramax, to their credit, leave the film itself intact here and present a reasonably crafted behind the scenes supplement. Naturally, the theatrical trailer is non-present.

Case Study:

Pushing the Daniel Craig angle to the fore, the cover art features Craig’s character, heavily shaded so it could perhaps be him in some graphic form, complete with handgun, to attract the hard-core action and Bond crowd. Other than that it appears to be a translation of the theatrical poster art – always a plus – including the de rigor Eiffel Tower in plain view, just in case you forget which city Paris actually is. An insert lists the 16 chapter stops inside.

Ink And Paint:

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Renaissance’s pristine whites and heavy blacks are rendered perfectly here in the film’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio. In a film shaded in pure light and blackest dark there isn’t much to add about “color vibrancy”, “flesh tones” or “shadow detail”, but thumbs go up for the stark contrast and rock steady digital transfer, which even lacks potential problems with ugly edge enhancement, here kept to the bare minimum.

Scratch Tracks:

Just as good is the English dub, sounding almost as true as the original French track (give or take the performance variations), which is included here as a bonus of the film not undergoing recuts for the English/US release. A watch with director Christian Volckman’s voice cast of choice is obviously encouraged along with the English subtitles, but Craig and Co do pull off a very pleasing and authentic translation that sounds well mixed and reproduced here, even placing some dialogue directly into the surrounds – a rarely used and surprisingly cool treat. Indeed, for a film that contains so much atmosphere, it’s the subtle nuances that stand out, helping to build the Renaissance world against the out of kilter images admirably.

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My only problem was a technical one, being that when I switched to the French track, my player intermittently froze when faced with a recurring audio glitch. Selecting the English dub again had the deck resuming play from the point of locking, but it was an odd problem to face and means that, on my main player at least, I can’t sit and view the Gallic original with the subtitles on for fear of glitching. Although it seems an isolated case, we tried another copy, which worked but displayed the occasional subtitle even though there were not enabled. We also picked up at least two or three lesser problematic audio pops in the Making Of on both discs, so something is screwy in the world of Renaissance’s DVD mastering, thus knocking a point or two off the score.

Final Cut:

Although I found it hard to warm to Renaissance overall, it certainly is an attempt to push technology forward, or at least present the “state of the art” with the inadequacies cleverly hidden, and makes a break from the family friendly influx of the CG glut we’re faced with week in, week out. For those into their cyberpunk, the movie may well provide some thrills, though I can’t really see this gaining a following as Blade Runner or The Matrix sequels have. Rendering the characters in stark, Frank Miller-styled graphic novel form does pull away from the fakery of The Polar Express, but somehow doesn’t feel as “real” as The Incredibles or even Ratatouille, but it’s a combination with motion capture that could have an interesting development. The two-toned look is the obvious unique selling point, effectively creating a good and bad world for its characters to populate. Perhaps if the stories can evolve with the medium, we could be looking at a new sub-genre: Cartoon Noir?

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

 

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