Animation often gets shunned from highbrow film circles. The perception seems to be that American animation is for kids, Japanese anime is for adolescent males and European animation can safely be ignored as an inconsequential niche market. I’ve never agreed with that assessment, but it’s become almost a self-fulfilling prophecy that prevents any film unwilling to conform to these expectation from getting wide distribution or recognition.
But times are changing. We’ve had an Academy Award for animated features since 2001 and there’s been enough mainstream competition that Disney’s never even won. Anime has long since moved from subculture to pop culture, even if it only rarely gets admitted into high culture. Even European works are seeing occasional DVD releases, though we still have a loooong way to go. Don’t get me started on Russia. And while it used to be that animations of all stripes were few and far between, it's actually hard to keep up with them nowadays.
The technology has changes as well. In the same way that handheld 16 mm cameras in the early 1960’s and digital cameras in late 1990’s opened up greater freedom and accessibility to independent artists, improved off-the-shelf software has changed animation. It used to be that animation required so much time, money and staff that filmmakers couldn’t pursue individual interests or take artistic risks. There are few precedents for solo (or near solo) animation (Piotr Kamler’s 1982 “Chronopolis” is a rare exception) until Bill Plympton in the 1990's and the last few years with the emergence of films like Nina Paley's "Sita Sings the Blues" (2008), Tol's "Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space" (2003), M. dot Strange’s “We Are the Strange” (2007), John Bergin's "From Inside" (2008) and Ladd Ehlinger’s “Flatland” (2007).
The screenplay by Tom Whalen updates this story into a modern context, though wisely maintaining most of the original concepts about how a 2D society would function. He adds a great deal of extra detail and several subplots to round things out, although little of it adds much to the film and most of the ideas are left hanging. Squares rebellious hexagonal daughter, the death of the king’s irregular-sided son, a suicidal radical female, shiny mysterious glowpoints imported from a Northern kingdom, a campaign in Spaceland to destroy Flatland (with no convincing motivation), Sphere’s religious corporation “Messiah Inc.” (which doesn’t seem to have an income source or purpose) and many other elements are presented, but not really developed into a satisfying whole.
Whalen does deserve credit, however, for his narrator intertitles. Especially near the beginning of the film, he inserts his wry commentary into the action to explain the setup (rather than wasting time with an intro) and demonstrate a certain level of self-consciousness about the book’s shortcomings (particularly its chauvinism and bluntness). I actually kind of missed the little text interruptions when they more or less gave way to the action as we enter Spaceland, but at least it isn’t overdone.
Of the 2D and 3D realms, I felt Flatland was surprisingly more compelling and I’m glad it gets the lion’s share of the runtime. Careful attention to props, layout and background give these scenes a clean graphic design neatness that turns the low-budget into an asset.
The camera zooms into Square’s brain for dream sequences or pulls back to reveal the highly symmetrical architecture. By keeping the camera perspective along simple normals and parallel lines, Ehlinger mimics the strictness of Flatland’s rigidly structured society while still leaving room for plenty of subtle gags in the presentation.
The transition into 3D makes for a nice change-up in the plot, style and graphics, but Spaceland lacks the charm and quiet beauty of Flatland’s design. Ehlinger’s rendering of Sphere’s hovercraft, floating citadel and billboard strewn skyways doesn’t match the originality of his 2D work.
But most of that is just pickiness when you consider the level of polish that is achieved with only one animator and in only 18 months. Ehlinger never really pushes graphics as a primary concern anyway; it isn’t intended to dazzle so much as to illustrate the adventure, satire and thought-experiments. When it does rest too long in a single place, one can feel the emptiness start to creep in, but Whalen’s screenplay smartly keeps the characters more mobile and active than the novel. Elsewhere a couple of special effects like surface warping, plenty of quality voice-acting and a good deal of humor (I could have done with more geometry puns, though) pick up the slack between this and large-scale productions.
Walrus Rating: 7.0