Ever since Pixar revamped Disney animation from drawing to digital, its 3-D artifice has also set the dominant style for baby-sitting fare. With few exceptions — such as The Iron Giant, Monster House, Coraline, The Adventures of Tintin, Winnie the Pooh, Paranorman, The Secret of Kells, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Lego Movie, and My Life as a Zucchini — most animated features seek the simple shiny-new-thing response.
But Milorad Krstic, a Slovenian filmmaker working in Hungary, uses modern animation technique and inspiration to restore the form’s connection to the tradition of hand-created fine-art in Ruben Brandt, Collector. Krstic converts the Eastern European style of poster-art animation to museum culture. The title figure is a psychotherapist (voiced by Iván Kamarás) experiencing high-art vertigo; he suffers from nightmares about art-canon masterpieces from Velázquez, Manet, and Botticelli to Van Gogh, Warhol, and Hopper. This obsession intrigues his patients, including kleptomaniac Mimi (voiced by Gabriella Hámori), who ironically advises, “Possess your problem.” This leads to a series of thefts in international museums, including the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Tate, and MoMA.
The chase-movie plot follows private investigator Mike Kowalski (Csaba Márton) pursuing the band of international art thieves, picking up clues like an art historian interpreting masterpieces. In this parody of the hard-boiled-detective genre, Ruben Brandt, Collector further connects art, film, and animation, mapping out the idea of self-discovery and personal relations through culture. He uses Bazille’s portrait of Auguste Renoir, Duveneck’s Whistling Boy, and even a caricature of curator Henry Geldzahler to greater effect than Wes Anderson’s culture-vulture fakery in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Krstic’s style emulates the go-go-go impetus of Spielberg’s Tintin, and his impasto of movie references (from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Peckinpah’s Convoy) provides a postmodern spin beyond the overly vertiginous Into the Spiderverse. Through Krstic’s art references, assorted characters are drawn with the multiple features (pairs of eyes, breasts, limbs) that depict the physical and psychic shifts, the revolution in perspective and consciousness, implied by Picasso’s African-inspired Cubism. This abstraction, as immediately readable as the anthropomorphic toys in The Lego Movie, sparks constant, quick-thinking reflection on the Western canon without attacking it. Krstic’s conceit implies that we haven’t thought enough about our cultural history to abandon or dismiss it so easily. As a product of this chaotic period, Ruben Brandt, Collector avers, “Everything is not awesome.”
The political subtext of Ruben Brandt, Collector involves Cold War tension and psychological experiments by the East German Stasi that blend with U.S. foreign policy and artisanal film practice. It is consistent with Tibor Cári’s music score, which gives “Oops, I Did It Again,” “All About That Bass,” “Creep,” and “Do You Love Me?” the Bryan Ferry/Berlin-jazz still-avant-garde rethink.
Krstic’s art-consciousness is an alternative to mainstream animation, which is geared to elicit responses that are no more complex than giggling, blubbering, or technological awe — the dehumanized drive behind Pixar-Apple consumerism.