There are enough ideas in Ari Folman’s brilliant “The Congress” to fuel two films.
The film is based in part on Polish Sci-Fi author StanisÅ‚aw Lems “The Futurological Congress”. In Lem’s 1971 book Ijon Tichy, attending said Congress at the HIlton Hotel in Costa Rica, survives a riot. The government slips psychotropic drugs into the water supply to suppress the riot, Tichy, and other survivors, wander through the sewers in a satiric psychedelic fever dream, believing he’s awakened in a future world where life has been overtaken by hallucinations.
Folman’s key team from “Waltz With Bashir”, artistic director David Polonsky and animation director Yoni Goodman are on board.
In 2008, when “”Waltz With Bashir” was nominated for best animation feature at the Annies, and defeated by “Kung Fu Panda, which swept the awards, I remember suggesting to Jerry Beck, that ASIFA missed an opportunity to create a new category, Best Dramatic Animated Feature to honor Folman’s unique work. Although there have been isolated dramatic animations before 2008, the success of that film helped launch a movement worldwide of dramatic animated features: ‘Wrinkles”, “Ernest & Celestine”, “From Up on Poppy Hill”, “Alois Nobel”, “Crulic: The Path to Beyond” et al, and the soon to be released “Davin” and “Rocks In My Pocket”.
Robin Wright, playing herself, lives with her kids Sarah (Sami Gayle) and Aron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), in a retooled hanger next to an isolated airstrip. Aron, who suffers from a disease that will eventually lose him both hearing and sight, is under treatment with Dr. Barker (Paul Giamatti).
Dr. Barker plays the part of a cynical commentator as Robin’s world view changes unto the futurological assault.
Aron’s love in life is flying kites, and the airfield has threatened to evict the Wrights if Aron’s kites cross over into the restricted airspace one more time.
Wrights dedicated, love struck agent Al (Harvey Keitel) can’t book her a significant role. He arranges for a meeting with the head of Miramount Studios. Al and Robin, dressed to then nines, drive onto Miramount studios, in a scene that parodies “Sunset Boulevard”. Slimy studio head jeff, voiced with relish by Danny Huston, recalls Robin’s dewy star turn in Princess Bride, and offers her the only deal on the table. He is willing to buy her digitally scanned presence, preserved as her younger self, for all future rights, with the condition that she will never work as an actor on screen, stage or amateur theatricals for the rest of her natural life. Ms. Wright refuses, but eventually, realizing that she’s one of the last hold- outs to be digitally scanned, she agrees to the Devil’s bargain.
Twenty Years Later. She’s invited to the Futorological Conference. Driving along a California highway, she enters a Restricted Animation Zone. An animated guard offers her an “ampule”; she drinks, and as the drives into the zone, she becomes the animated version of herself. She drives along a sinuous morphing road, pulling the kind of road stunts only possible in a cartoon, into a ‘Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline’ resort area as bright and Psychedelic as ‘Yellow Submarine.”
Checking in, she’s invited to perform at The Congress. The lobby, and ensuing party scenes, is peppered with caricatures of the famous and near famous, including Tom Cruz (a feral grin plastered on his face), Marilyn Monroe, Grace Jones, Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood, Jesus Christ, David Bowie, Pinocchio, Frank Sinatra, and my favorite, a lecherous Pablo Picasso in his iconic striped French sailors shirt, squiring a young girlfriend. Search the crowd scenes- they’re laden. Folman also quotes cartoon characters from “Porky in Wackyland”, Who “Framed Roger Rabbit”, “Fritz the Cat”, “Shrek” and countless other cartoons and pays homage to key animators like Fleischer brothers, Fritz Freleng, Gerald Scarfe and Ub Iwerks.
More disturbing, the lobby’s a-swarm with gossiping fans dressed as Robin Wright the Action star.
These group scenes ape the series of short cartoons, laden with celebrity caricatures that were a staple of the Golden Age Of Hollywood: films like “The Coo-Coo Nut Grove”, “Felix in Hollywood” (1923), “Seeing Stars” (1932), “Mickey’s Gala Premiere” (1933), “Toyland Premiere” (1934), “Mickey’s Polo Team” (1936), “Mother Goose Goes Hollywood” (1938), “The Autograph Hound” (1939) and “Mother Goose in Swingtime” (1939).
The Future is dominated By Robin Wright as an Action Film Superstar, projected on Blimps everywhere at once. But the Studio is ready for the next and final co-option, and the Congress is an opportunity to launch the ultimate trip. Robin Wright can be drunk, you can BE Robin Wright, experiencing all her screen adventures. The corporate takeover of our dreams is the ultimate Bread and Circuses.
jeff, fully animated, pushes Robin to sign the latest contract, releasing herself as a drinkable substance, Overwhelmed she agrees but once onstage, flanked by bare chested Kodo drummers and dwarfed by enormous screens, Wright , unable to go through with it, tries to blow the whistle on the Studio’s plan for world domination.
There’s a riot and the release of mind controlling substances. Escaping underground Robin meets her true love, the man who’s been animating her for twenty years, Dylan Truliner (Jon Hamm). She awakes 70 years in the future and attempts to find her son Aron and Dylan again.
What a time jumping genre bending film, half live action, half splashy animation, part drama, romance, comedy and social satire, Folman keeps you thinking to the last image. Over rich, at times confusing, but a MUST SEE.