"Loving Vincent" is, indisputably, a technical achievement. Each one of the ambitious animated film's 65,000 frames is an oil painting, created by a classically trained artist in the style — or, rather, in the various styles — of painter Vincent Van Gogh. More than 100 painters worked together to create the film, which follows an acquaintance of the artist who is trying to uncover how and why Van Gogh died in 1890, at 37.
Visually, it's spectacular. Conceptually, it's jaw-dropping to simply considering the effort that went into this.
The story, however, doesn't always hold its own.
Husband-and-wife filmmakers Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman directed the drama, which they wrote with Jacek Dehnel. All are fairly new to feature filmmaking. Kobiela — an animator with the most experience of the three — has co-directed only one other feature, making this accomplishment all the more impressive.
The tale begins one year after Van Gogh has died, purportedly from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Joseph Roulin (voice of Chris O'Dowd), a postman and friend of the artist whom Van Gogh immortalized in portraiture, tasks his son Armand (Douglas Booth) with delivering the last letter that Van Gogh wrote before dying — one addressed to the artist's brother Theo.
Armand's journey takes the first of several detours once he realizes that Theo, too, is dead. So Armand travels to Auvers-sur-Oise, the town where Van Gogh died, to meet with the people who knew the painter in an effort to understand what exactly happened. What starts out as an investigation into the suicide of a man — whose depression and anxiety seemed to be lifting just before his death — turns into a whodunit.
In reality, much of the potential murder mystery feels like an excuse to merely revisit characters and scenes from Van Gogh's art. Watching "Loving Vincent" involves something of an Easter egg hunt, as viewers may try to pick out the famous works of art from among its scenes. There are portraits of Van Gogh's doctor, Paul Gachet (Jerome Flynn), and his daughter Marguerite (Saoirse Ronan), along with a glimpse of "The Starry Night" and of boats on the Oise River bank.
Van Gogh's 1890 portrait of Adeline Ravoux — the daughter of innkeepers at the house where Van Gogh died — may not be his best known work, but the character of Adeline (Eleanor Tomlinson), who has plenty of theories about the enigmatic artist, makes a deep impression.
Some exchanges between Armand and the people he meets are more meaningful than others. At times, the narrative drags, as Armand plays sleuth in pursuit of a solution to a mystery that may not even be one.
There is nevertheless a thrill in watching static images spring to life as complex characters and dynamic landscapes. "Loving Vincent" is itself an imaginative work of art. And what better way than that to honor its subject?
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains discussions of suicide, some violence, sexual material and smoking. 94 minutes.