It’s difficult for a film to blend animation with live action in a credible way. It’s been more than 25 years since the release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and I can’t think of a single picture since that does half as good of a job combining the two techniques. Last year’s The Congress sidesteps this problem by keeping its live-action & animation segments almost entirely separate. There’s a purpose to its partitioning of its separate halves, though. The front, live-action end of The Congress depicts a drab, near-future full of anxieties, disease, fears, and oppressive commercialism. The animated second half is an escapist fantasy that offers sanctuary from that depressing world, its own crippling faults buried deep underground. There’s a vibrant world of possibility (both elating & horrifying) offered by The Congress’ choice to animate its outlandish, dystopian future. It was a wise decision that saved the film from being a decent sci-fi exercise and instead made it an engaging cinematic oddity.
The opening, live-action segment of The Congress has an interesting way of providing flat, nonchalant reads of big concepts. Playing off the idea that movie studios literally want to own their talent (like in early Hollywood, if not like now), the not-quite-fictional powerhouse Miramount Pictures offers Robin “Princess Bride” Wright (playing herself here) a life-changing professional opportunity. They offer her a large sum of money to “hermetically scan” her likeness using a futuristic technology that would allow them to insert her digital self into any film project they want. The contract would prevent her from ever acting in the flesh again, but if she doesn’t sign it she’s also risking the studio erasing her work from the screen forever. It’s an interesting concept that brings to question a lot of notions we have as an audience about celebrities (real-life, breathing human beings) as consumable products. In addition to her contract negotiations with Miramount (she eventually signs the contract, of course) the film also interweaves some half-baked, purple prose musings about her son’s deteriorating health and obsession with kites & airplanes. The overreaching sentimentality of these scenes reminds me a lot of the soft sci-fi of the over-the-top camp fest Upside Down and a lesser movie would’ve stopped there and not pushed its crackpot ideas any further (like in Upside Down). The Congress, thankfully, keeps pushing.
After Wright allows herself to be “hermetically scanned” the film jumps 20 years further into the future into a world where people escape from the shackles of an unfulfilling reality by snorting a chemical that allows them to live in a vibrant, animated fantasy world. The “Animation Zone” is a complicated mess of art influences; like an art deco take on Dr. Suess’ wavy line landscapes with whales, dragons, constellations, rainbows, and genitals-shaped fish populating its blinding, neon color palette. It’s stunning. From this point on, it is difficult to tell exactly how much of the film is “real” and how much of it is happening only in Wright’s mind. As one character puts it, “Ultimately everything makes sense and everything is in our minds.” Playing off the celebrities-as-commodities concept of the first half, film studios in the animated future have found a way to convert actors into chemical compounds that can be eaten, drank, and ultimately copied. Instead of watching your favorite celebrities act out fantasies onscreen, you can now become them, so the world is littered with endless copies of familiar faces like Tom Cruise, Ron Jeremy, Jesus Christ, Michael Jackson, Zeus, Marilyn Monroe, Frida Kahlo, and Muhammad Ali. It’s terrifying.
The animated back end of The Congress is by far the more impressive half of the film, but its slow introduction through the “technophobic”, soft sci-fi of the first half is partly what makes it work. There have been a lot of recent films that attempt to tackle the emptiness of celebrity culture (Birdman & Maps to the Stars, for example), but none push their concepts to such a far, overreaching end as The Congress. The film isn’t entirely successful. The significance of the kite & airplane metaphors, while serving as a decent through line between the two segments, were difficult to grasp as a viewer; there’s an uncomfortable line of thought near the climax that risks making the entire film feel like a screed on anti-depressants; the stilted nature of the dialogue on the front end can be alternatingly amusing & frustrating, etc. However, its faults feel trivial in consideration of how ambitious & assertive the film plays as a whole. The Congress may be an overwrought mess in some ways, but it’s a fascinatingly idiosyncratic mess that’s impressive in its aspirations of pushing its musings on celebrity culture to the most far-reaching ends possible, putting good taste & tact aside in favor of a thorough, bizarrely unrestrained exploration of its themes. It’s the exact kind of mess I like.