CAPSULE: Edwin Abbott's 1884 fantasy is adapted to the screen. Like the book the film seems deceptively simple. In Flatland the inhabitants are figures from plane geometry who do not believe there ever could be a third dimension. Abbott's political satire is updated for the screen, but the story loses none of its charm or its bite. This is a unique animated film that takes on race, gender, class, and political corruption while entertaining and perhaps even teaching a little mathematics. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Fantasy stories have created many lands that have become as intriguing in themselves as characters. There is Swift's Lilliput (among other worlds of Gulliver), Carroll's Wonderland, Baum's Oz, Hilton's Shangri-La, and Tolkein's Middle Earth. Flatland is one land best known to mathematics and technical students as well as people interested in science fiction's 19th century prehistory. The planar land appeared in 1884 in FLATLAND: A ROMANCE OF MANY DIMENSIONS, a strange short book written by Edwin A. Abbott, initially published under the name of the book's main character, A Square.
The inhabitants of Flatland are lines and polygons living in a flat plane. The men are all polygons, generally each with one side more than his father had. The more sides a polygon has the greater status he has in society. Women, on the other hand, are all straight-line segments. That means they have little status. However, since a line cannot be seen edge-on and is thinner than a knife, can easily stab and injure men--intentionally or not--so they are very dangerous. Being dangerous gives them some power. We see this Flatland through the eye (singular) of the lawyer aptly named A Square.
Most polygons in Flatland are white by law and that is how many want it, but there is a growing "Chromatist" movement in the society for the liberating effects of color. (Note that a similar idea cropped up in PLEASANTVILLE more than a century after Abbott wrote about it.) A Square is called on to defend a woman/line falsely accused of being a Chromatist. Soon a Chromatists' rebellion has Flatland in an uproar and fleeing a rebellion A Square hides in his home. There he sleeps and has a vivid dream of Lineland, a one-dimensional land in which all the inhabitants are line segments. They do not believe there can be a second dimension. This dream happens to be fortuitous, because the gentle, bewildered A Square is about to be discovered by the somewhat overbearing A Sphere, a strange spherical visitor from a three-dimensional world, Spaceland. That world is as incomprehensible to A Square as A Square was to the lines segments of Lineland. A Square is allowed to visit Spaceland with his new friend, a person of some prominence in his own world. He finds Spaceland a world very different from his own, mostly because it has the extra dimension. But at the same time this bewildering world is similar enough to be on the brink its own devastating war.
Tom Whalen's script removes much of the Victorian caricature and replaces it with satire of our time. That is at least arguably an accurate approach since it makes the film as timely to its audience as the book was to its initial readership. Remember George Pal's THE TIME MACHINE, another hyper-dimensional novel, also brought up contemporary fears of nuclear war that were not in the original story. Like Pal's THE TIME MACHINE, this film has the essence of the book while taking some liberties with the plot.
Some of the topics this film addresses are class, race, political power, and nuclear war. That is quite a bit even for this is a feature film of 95 minutes. The story moves from being generally whimsical to more serious to even grim in the later parts of the story. But there is always wit, even in the closing credits. As with the book GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, the apparently whimsical themes of have serious intent. The film maintains a running commentary on itself by a mechanism borrowed from some silent films, the witty title card insert.
The film's creator and director, Ladd Ehlinger, Jr., has given the film a very original feel. In fact, Abbott's illustrations for his book and his vision of his characters is really a little plain for a current animated film. One might think that the time for an animated version of FLATLAND might almost seem to have passed. There is not much in the story to allow a production designer use much more than rudimentary computer animation. Even the exalted priests of Flatland--circles--look like little more than Pac-Man eaters are. But Ehlinger is able to improve quite a bit on the Abbott illustrations for imagination, showing us stylized internal organs. The visuals of the film rise to be of no more than moderate interest, but it is impressive that this production could do even that much with them. One minor problem with the visuals: toward the end when the storytelling becomes more complex, the images we see are occasionally hard to interpret. For viewers with a mathematical bent the illustrations may be of a little more interest. However, time does seem to be running out for animated versions of this film. That may be why a competing production is being made, directed by Jeffrey Travis. In spite of having a familiar voice of Martin Sheen, it is unlikely this film will be able to steal the thunder from Ehlinger's version. There were two previous screen adaptations in 1965 and 1982. Neither seems to have made much of an impact or even escaped obscurity.
Probably in an attempt to keep prices down in what had to be a low-budget effort, no familiar actor voices were employed. Nor are they missed. Instead, it appears from that credits that Ehlinger has used the voices of his family and friends. Occasionally there are impressions of familiar voices like Ed Wynn, Ted Kennedy, and perhaps comedian Paul Lynde. While there is an original score, it quotes from existing sources such as Richard Wagner and (I believe) THE INCREDIBLES.
FLATLAND may not appeal to those who want the sort of animated action that was in THE INCREDIBLES or those who want fuzzy animals. The film apparently had a low budget and needed no more. The result is a delectable animated confection with claws in it paws. I rate FLATLAND +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. One minor note, this film takes place in the year 2999 and 3000 and claims that the millenium has changed in that interval. A script on such a mathematical theme should get right that the millenium actually changes between 3000 and 3001.
Note: this film seems some places, including the IMDB, to have been renamed FLATLAND: THE FILM, probably to distinguish it unambiguously from the other adaptation this year FLATLAND: THE MOVIE.
The film's website: http://www.flatlandthefilm.com/
The short novel on-line: http://www.geom.uiuc.edu/~banchoff/Flatland/ (illustrated) or plain text at http://tinyurl.com/245roq
YouTube Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=FlatlandTheFilm
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0972374/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper