Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Undone: Amazon Gets Rotoscoped

Rotoscoping must be the official animation style of Texas. After Richard Linklater used the technique of layering animation over live-action film cells for his Austin-set Walking Life, the team behind Bojack Horseman have employed it to tell a tale of [certain] depression, [likely] madness, and [possible] time travel in San Antonio. The result is Undone, the Amazon Empire’s first animated series for adults, which premieres this Friday.

Alma Winograd-Diaz’s family must have sky-high auto insurance rates. Roughly twenty years after her father Jacob Winograd perished in a car crash, Winograd-Diaz has a doozy of her own wreck. She wakes suffering from mild short-term amnesia, unaware she broke up with her loyal boyfriend Sam not long before. Determined to “be there for her,” Sam opts not to fill her in on this little detail.

Eventually, Sam’s white lie is bound to catch up with him, but it will take several twenty-some-minute episodes. In the short-term, Alma is quite distracted by her father, who has been appearing too her through some kind of astral woo-woo, pressuring her to help him solve his murder. Winograd is convinced he and his research assistant (whom he was absolutely not having an affair with) were bumped off because of his research into time travel. Having bobbed and weaved between life and death, Winograd-Diaz’s consciousness might be ready to embrace the non-linearity of time—or maybe she is losing her grasp on reality, like her schizophrenic grandmother.

You have to admire the ambition of creators Raphael Bob-Waksberg & Kate Purdy, who dive whole-heartedly into some heavy thematic material. Unfortunately, most of their character development work focused on Winograd-Diaz, a whiny, self-centered, self-defeating, self-loathing millennial, while most of the other characters are largely stock characters we can auto-fill on our own: bossy mother, princess-like younger sister, tolerant boss, doormat boyfriend. The notable exception is dear old dad, who is an intriguing cypher that slowly but surely takes on fuller dimensions.

Only the first five episodes (out of eight) have been supplied to reviewers, but thus far, the series errs on the side of family drama. Honestly, the only aspect of the Winograd-Diaz’s family most viewers will care about is the suspected murder of her father. It is too bad, because there is a lot of cool Inception kind of stuff going on. It potentially represents an intelligent return to the mind-over-matter school of time travel movies that goes back at least as far as Somewhere in Time, but has far richer theoretical underpinnings this time around.

Given the rotoscope technique, we really can talk about full performances from the Undone cast, not just voice-over work. Although he is deceptively reserved, there is something about the scoped-over Bob Odenkirk as Winograd that holds viewers’ attention and imagination rapt. It is also worth noting emerging indie genre superstar Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) portrays his student-assistant, but most of her featured work presumably comes in episodes six to eight. As Winograd-Diaz, Rosa Salazar makes us want to bang our heads against a park bench, but that means she nails the character.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound is still probably the greatest head-shrinking thriller of all time, thanks to the imagery he and Salvador Dali crafted. At its best, Undone presents psycho-razzle dazzle at a similar level. The problem is all the patience-sapping melodrama. Recommended for the expressionistic visuals to Prime members, who have already paid for it, Undone premieres this Friday (9/13) on Amazon.