Ever since Pixar proved that three dimensional animation could be considered art, the battle between traditional pen and ink cartooning and the high tech tool has raged ever onward. On the one side are those who fear the tradition of human drawing will be destroyed by the turn toward computer assisted creativity. On the other are those who fervently believe that all technological advances can only improve the process. This contrast between progress and the past is a lot like the conflict at the core of director Jeffrey Travis’ adaptation of Edwin A. Abbot’s 1884 social commentary Flatland. Originally conceived by the author as a swipe at the stringent Victorian class system, this delightful fable provides the perfect metaphor for those who embrace change vs. those with a fundamentalist hold on the past.
Arthur Square (Martin Sheen) and his adopted granddaughter Hex (Kristin Bell) are free thinking forms in the two dimensional world of Flatland. He’s an office drone who takes orders from supposed superiors, sage like Circles who use their many angled manner as a means of oppressing the mathematical masses. There is a strict hierarchy in this order – triangles are the lowest, common worker, followed quickly by squares, pentagons, hexagons, etc. One day, Arthur is visited by Spherius (Michael York), a messenger from Spaceland. He has come to show the naïve citizens of Flatland that there is another dimension, a third dimension of height, that will broaden their perspective on the universe and their own 2D life. Of course, if successful, the Circles will lose their power. So they plot to suppress this information, and anyone who holds it – including Arthur and Hex.
Clocking in at a little over 30 minutes and packing a lot of education in its geometrical meaning, Flatland is a fabulously engaging effort. Not to be confused with a 2007 full length feature by Ladd Ehlinger, Jr., this labor of love represents a real sense of individual imagination and awe-inspiring wonder. Writers Seth Caplan and Dano Johnson, along with director Travis, have translated the essence of Abbot’s allegory, using the best bits to fuel a fantastic look at conformity, control, and the power of contravention. With effective voice work from Sheen, his real life brother Joe Estevez, Bell, and others, the result is an exceptional classroom tool that functions equally well as an artistically brave entertainment. Indeed, one of the best facets of Flatland is the intriguing character design, in combination with the unique vision employed to realize the basic X,Y world.
Bringing personality to squares, triangles, and other shapes is never easy, especially when you have to adhere to clear mathematical principles (don’t want the number geeks getting on your case over the angles of your vertices, right?). Yet thanks to a combination of simplicity and sophistication, a clear old school cartoon technique merged with the infinite options of motherboard manipulation, we get breathtaking moments like the aerial view of our title locale, or the opening sequence shuffle through the everyday activity of the population. It’s amazing stuff, the kind of material that shows how dedicated Travis and company are at making this unusual universe real and tactile. We get a true sense of Arthur’s home and workplace, as well as the suburban Hell setup that strictures Flatland.
Yet this film doesn’t rely on eye candy to get its point across. There are solid ideas behind Flatland, concepts that Abbott challenged along with his pre-1984 prognostication. One of the best moments occurs when Spherius – voiced with perfect gravitas by York – scoffs at the notion of a FOURTH dimension. Apparently, just like the Circles who guide the 2D world, the 3D plane is equally shortsighted. There’s also a sensational sequence where little Hex begins the process of thinking “outside the box”, using the theorems presented to explain the leap from length and width to height – and maybe beyond. Arthur’s interaction with Pointland and Lineland are also flawless at getting their message across with straightforward, self-explanatory strokes. From the tiniest detail to the celebratory conclusion, Flatland stands as a major accomplishment.
It also suggests that old fashioned cartooning and CGI can easily work together. When given a chance, the techniques blend effortlessly, resulting in a memorable, magical movie going experience. There is a lot of heart here, along with the various formulas and arithmetic – and while some of Abbot’s story and satire are simplified in order to make things more manageable, the main narrative never feels truncated. In fact, this adaptation avoids a great deal of the ancillary politics of the period that get in the way of the wonder. Flatland is clearly more interested in the bigger picture than the many minor facets. Its successful combination of approaches bodes well for the future of animated movies – and the fortunes of these filmmakers.