It's easy to look at the increasingly formulaic animation coming out of American studios and despair for the state of the medium, but that's why we have foreign animators (and the distribution company GKids, quickly turning into the best friend that a U.S.-based animation buff has nowadays). To whit, we now turn to The Painting, a 2011 French-Belgian production that took it's damn sweet time crossing the Atlantic, but having done so in the summer of 2013 proved an especially welcome proof that somewhere on this planet, people are trying to push the medium into new shapes. The person in this case being director and co-writer (with Anik Leray) Jean-François Laguionie, whose idea for the film is a gloriously visual one, though his idea for the story to tell within those visuals isn't quite as fully fleshed-out as it maybe should be. That being said, you can wait a long time between movies with such a profoundly original look breathing life to a scenario that's so eager to investigate questions about how society is and should be, while also providing the best metaphor for the hunt for an apparently absent God that I've seen in a movie in a really long time; when all that's going for a film, it smacks of bitchy ingratitude to complain that the narrative logic hasn't been tightened all the way down.

The setting is a painting depicting a château, a garden, and a forest, the inhabitants of which are self-aware and not constrained to the locations directly visible on the canvass, but also to the places implied within the painting. This particular piece of art has been left unfinished by the unknown Painter, leaving the inhabitants divided into three castes: the Alldunns (Toupins in French, and my great compliments to the translators, who managed to capture the essence of a lot of wordplay quite smoothly), who were completely finished; the Halfies (Pafinis), mostly complete except for a bit of clothing or skin left without color, and the Sketchies (Reufs), who exist as only penciled lines, some of them looking quite deformed indeed. The Halfies are grudgingly permitted by the Alldunns to stay around as long as they keep silent and out of the château, but the Sketchies are treated as something hardly better than animals.

Two inciting incidents kick off the film's story: a Halfie, Claire (Chloé Berthier), in love with the Alldunn Ramo (Adrien Larmande) goes missing, so he and her good friend Lola (Jessica Monceau) head into the forbidden forest to look for her. Meanwhile, a Sketchie, Gom (Julien Bouanich) is horribly beaten and killed by a contemptuous group of Alldunns, and his best friend Plume (Thierry Jahn), driven to madness in his grief and now in mortal terror, flees into the same forest; the three individuals, oh-so-conveniently derived from the three castes, find themselves at the edge of the painting and able to jump from the canvas and into the Painter's studio. From here, they explore several other paintings, hoping to find the Painter and entreat him to finish their painting and bring harmony where there is now discord.

You'd have to be willfully ignoring a lot not to see the parable about people looking for God to demand that he fix all of their problems, only to discover that they are well able to correct their own problems without divine intervention, which is exactly what God was hoping for all along (it does not, in the end, prove to be an atheistic, or even an agonistic film). Which is a hell of a meaty subject for such a slight film as The Painting to bite off, especially when it was already running through a satiric attack on upper class elitism and abuse of those with less stature. It's unlikely that too many people would find any of this mind-blowing revolutionary, but you've got to give the film credit not just for having ideas, but for putting them front and center. The movie expects a certain amount of sophistication and intellectual curiosity that shouldn't be as rare in Western animation as it is, and for trusting that its audience is smart and able to quickly cotton to philosophical complexity of any sort, the film would already win me over.

The downside is that the story, being so overtly symbolic, doesn't always bother to work on any other level but symbolism, and any hopes that the film's very involved universe will establish a consistent and useful series of rules about how the paintings work absolutely fail to pay off. This is a much bigger frustration than it probably sounds, based on the plot I've laid out; around the two-thirds mark, the film starts to go quite weird altogether, making up shit as it goes along, simply to keep the story moving in a direction that will swing by all the necessary beats it needs to hit if it's going to stay working as a fable. That's annoying; there's absolutely no other way to put it, thought at least The Painting, all of 79 minutes long, is over too quickly to start to bog down in the middle. It very much feels like it might, though.

Regardless, neither the symbolic plot nor the raggedy narrative are really the draw here: this is a film that lives and triumphs on the strength of its imagery, in which computer animation is used to create a variety of flat and semi-flat surfaces that look flawlessly like very impressionistic oil paintings moving around. On a purely technical level, it's impressive how the various characters are shaded to imply the illusion of depth, rather than to actually attain depth; on a stylistic level, it's wonderful how subtly the design suggests the Painter's evolving hand in the different paintings that we see, all coming from the same general aesthetic school but different from each other in details of color and geometry and more-or-less realism. And from the point of sheer animation fanboyism, it is fucking beautiful, an explosion of textured colors and smoothly flowing movements that never cease to feel fresh and radical throughout the entire film. There are sequences of blissed-out energy, sequences of moody tension, sequences of relaxing calm, all of them made according to a flexible but unified aesthetic that instantly sucks the viewer into this very exact and specific world and makes it feel like a completely valid, tangible place. It might be eye candy in this regard, but there's the kind of candy you can buy at any store, and there's the kind made at little artisan shops along the river in small towns hours from anything. The Painting's biggest pleasures might be a little on the superficial side, but anything this unprecedented and successful commands all of my enthusiasm no matter what little script problems it has along the way.