October 8, 2007
For any new filmmaker, getting that first movie in the can is a monumental task. Add a demanding script and a predilection for toggling between animation and live action and you’re really talking about a challenging debut effort. With his recently premiered film Imagination, Eric Leiser has assembled a surprisingly ambitious project that complements his animation skills, but he’s generally let down by his actors, who are desiccant to the film’s sea of imagery.
Imagination steps into the surreal world of twin sisters Anna and Sarah Woodruff (Nikki and Jessi Haddad) who have confronted their disabilities by turning inward to their own imaginations and shared alternate reality. One girl has been rendered blind; the other has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a form of autism characterized by difficulty interacting and socializing with others. The girls’ well intentioned but ill-equipped parents (Travis Poelle and Courtney Sanford) seek the aid of neuropsychologist Dr. Reineger (Edmund Gildersleeve) to chart a path to normalcy through the twins’ mental shroud.
The girls’ behavior becomes increasingly difficult for their parents to comprehend. Their food transcends the dinner plate to become living sculpture, and the girls play games in intricate, frenetic patterns that only minds in lockstep could achieve. Faced with the twins’ increasingly apparent and unexplainable abilities to defy accepted science and medical knowledge, Dr. Reineger is consumed with a profound professional crisis. He cannot effectively treat the girls, nor can he decode the bewildering world they have built for themselves within their minds.
The film’s real strength lies in its animation. Leiser’s whimsical but intricate method recalls Czech surrealism and charts a brave experimental path, though he’s not quite ready to stand on the podium with Jan Svankmajer. Nonetheless, Leiser’s multifaceted abilities are put to great use in Imagination’s engaging animated segments. His stop motion and puppetry work is spellbinding at times. Leiser also has some raw ability as a filmmaker beyond his wheelhouse of animation and sculpture, but Imagination’s live action portions are less appealing.
With the exception of a solid effort by Gildersleeve, the cast sleepwalks through its lines, nearly negating Leiser’s efforts to move Imagination’s narrative forward through force of artistic will. The effect makes an already challenging film even less forgiving of its audience. While acting is the primary offender, there are other weak points as well. Prominent plot devices (like the earthquake) come off as contrived, with camera work to match, but you have to admire the pluck Leiser shows in taking on thorny cinematic tricks with a $110,000 budget and limited experience. A lovely musical score by Leiser’s brother Jeffrey, who also co-wrote the script, helps mask the lapses and seals the duo’s status as a formidable creative pair. Imagination’s animation and ambitious script are enough to carry it through a successful run on the festival circuit, which will hopefully lead to more projects from this promising duo.