Renaissance is a French animated feature film that is filled to the brim with style but in desperate need of a refill when it comes to substance. Conceived as an experiment, the film was done with motion capture technology combined with a black-and-white color palette. Real black-and-white. No gray at all.
The look of Renaissance, which Miramax has seen fit to subtitle Paris 2054 on the DVD box, is probably described the easiest as Sin City for the Xbox. That's maybe too simplistic, however. The vast world the animators have created is akin to European graphic novels more than Frank Miller's blocky style, and the character designs remind me of more photorealistic comics artists like Mike Huddleston (artist on The Coffin, among other titles). Whatever the influences, the movie is gorgeous looking, and I'd say about 90% convincing. There are times when some of the characters look less realized and more like rubbery digital models, particularly in the early scenes, but once you're entrenched in this futuristic adventure, Renaissance stays clean and consistent.
The cityscapes are amazingly detailed, and director Christian Volckman is assured with his camera, sweeping through the environments like a bird. He also understands where to remove details for effect, like the completely white backdrop for one of the final conversations in the movie. This makes the look of the movie more than just a visual hook, but a thriving entity. Negative space to an artist is like a pause in the hands of the right writer. In this sense, Vlockman is like the Harold Pinter of future-noir. He also has a hint of Jackson Pollack, letting chaotic splashes of color stain his landscape when we're seeing the drawings of a madman. Only a true architect knows when to destroy his own design rules like that. (And yes, I've mixed metaphors with about three different disciplines there. Sue me.)
While the animation is unlike any other movie we've seen, the story is like a ton of movies familiar to everyone and has nothing new to offer. Take the huge back catalogue of cop films that Ridley Scott turned on their ears in Blade Runner, and then throw them out. Instead, just watch Blade Runner and maybe some similarly themed Japanese anime, and that's about as deep as Renaissance's four original screenwriters take it (and add one more for good measure with the English adapter). The plot even hinges on living forever, for goodness sake.
Karas is a bad boy cop who'd rather barge into a dangerous situation than wait for a warrant. He rarely speaks, but instead is grimly dedicated to his job. This means his crew is fiercely loyal to him and his superiors only tolerate him in anticipation of the inevitable screw-up they know is coming. When a pretty research scientist goes missing, her highly influential employers, a biomedical cosmetic company called Avalon, wants her found. Karas hooks up with the missing girl's sister to find her, and the two uncover a dirty secret the company has buried. Karas foolishly confronts this corporation even though it's much larger than he is, gets kicked off the force, and then single-handedly brings everything crashing down.
Clichés don't stop being clichés just because you're putting them in a new context like a cartoon. Standard plots are still the best plots around, when you get down to brass tacks, but to make them sing you have to have some kind of poetry in the writing or at least characters that the audience will find interesting enough to invest themselves in. Renaissance lacks both, and the stiff English adaptation does nothing by way of lending a helping hand. The dub has its own set of problems. For one, why is everyone in Paris suddenly British? The cast also seems to have only two settings: either dialed down to the lowest heat possible or overly cartoony (for lack of a better word). The dubbing crew show little concern for the original tone of the piece, and the misaligned lip movements are often distracting. Despite having heavy hitters like Daniel Craig, Jonathan Pryce, and Ian Holm, I didn't get very far in before I switched over to the original French audio--which not only matched the mouths better but is just better acted. You can't go wrong with the original actors when it's their performances the animation was actually built on.
Unfortunately, there were added problems when watching the original language track, as well. From a couple of tell-tale signs, like people saying things that weren't translated and lines of dialogue appearing onscreen when no one was saying a word, I assume that the English subtitles are not really a translation of the actual French dialogue track but a transcript of the dubbing script. I only got a C in High School French, but even I know when a senile old woman is asking for the time. Where the English writer, Michael Katims (Harrison's Flowers), came up with "Such heart" instead of "What time is it?" is beyond me.
So, with all these complaints, does this pretty picture ever redeem itself? Surprisingly, yes. For all the middling build-up, Renaissance has a two-fisted ending that would make old noir masters proud. Karas makes a couple of tough decisions that have a cynical aftertaste that is actually pretty nice to chew on. It's just too bad a sixth writer couldn't come in and toughen the whole thing up so Renaissance is just as hardcore throughout.
The enhanced 2.25:1 widescreen transfer is knock-out good. The contrast between the heavy blacks and stark whites is excellent, and there are no problems with resolution or keeping the heavy level of detail the animators put into their work. I didn't see any artifacting or other compression problems, either. This is a top-of-the-line DVD.
The sound is also really good. Both the French and the English tracks are mixed in 5.1, with excellent body to the orchestral score, strong sound effects, and full use of the depth of field between your front and back speakers.
Two sets of English subtitles (regular and for the hearing impaired), as well as French and Spanish options, are also included. As you'll note in my review I had some issues with the English subtitling, but I'd still recommend the French audio for the full performance value.
A revealing 26-minute making-of exposes the process that the French animation crew developed for Renaissance. You see production sketches, motion capture sessions, and other aspects of the production. This program is in French with subtitles.
There are also multiple Miramax trailers.
Renaissance is full of futuristic cool. A hardboiled cop drama that owes a huge debt to Blade Runner and anime, it has a dazzling black-and-white visual style that takes motion capture technology and breaks the image down to its most primary values. Characters move through detailed environments, and director Christian Volckman has full command of the palette he has created. Unfortunately, his writers don't have full command of the tools available to them, and they do little to spruce up a cliché plot with any fantastic dialogue or compelling characters. Only a tough-as-nails ending pulls Renaissance out of the quicksand. Rent It--but only if you're going to watch the original French audio. If you're going to watch the English dub, I'd say skip it, because it's just that much worse.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.