This is without question one of the boldest films of the year. But does it pay off?
Arriving six years after his stunning animated war documentary Waltz with Bashir, the most recent film from Ari Folman is a mind-melting journey into a future of sensorial addiction. Loosely inspired by Stanislaw Lem's 1971 science-fiction novel The Futurological Congress, this new work blends live-action and animation in much the same way that it blends reality and fiction, all the while throwing satiric barbs at everything from celebrity obsession to pharmaceutical dependency, rampant consumerism and the depths of corporate greed. The Congress is without question one of the boldest films of the year, both aesthetically and in terms of its thematic ambition. Sadly, it's under the weight of that incredible ambition that the movie eventually stumbles.
The film begins in the very near future, with actress Robin Wright playing a fictionalised version of herself. Washed-up after years of bad career choices, Wright finds herself contemplating a bizarre offer from the monolithic Miramount Studios, who want to scan her likeness into a computer to create the world's first digital actress. The deal includes a stipulation that the real Wright never act again, but would guarantee her the money she needs to support her young son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who suffers from a rare medical disorder that is slowly turning him blind. So with a heavy heart, Wright signs on the dotted line.
Folman then skips a further 20 years into the future, to a special Miramount convention held at a luxurious hotel in the restricted "animated zone". A grotesque, kaleidoscopic, drug-induced cartoon land reminiscent not of the lifelike, rotoscoped animation of Waltz with Bashir, but of the more outlandish look of old favourites like Betty Boop and Yellow Submarine, it's in this world that Wright discovers the next phase of the Miramount scheme: the distribution and sale of her chemical essence directly to her ravenous fans.
You certainly can't fault The Congress for a lack of good ideas. The problem, rather, is the haphazard way in which they're presented. You get the distinct impression that Folman has bitten off more than he can chew, his scattershot social criticism often coming at the expense of narrative economy — or vice versa. As a result, the film feels bloated and uneven, with the first act in particular running far, far too long. So too does the movie grow increasingly bewildering in its final third. A second jump forward in time kills what little momentum the film had managed to accumulate, and while Folman's vision of the distant future is visually astounding, from a plot perspective it's also pretty disengaging.
There's far too much interesting material in The Congress to dismiss it outright. But by that same token, it's the promise of brilliance that ultimately makes it so disappointing. With more disciplined writing and editing, Folman's cartoon menagerie could have resembled a masterpiece. As it stands, it's an admirable and thought-provoking failure.