One of the first words we hear from Ruben Brandt, the renowned psychotherapist, is a distress call. “My nightmares are getting stronger and stronger,” he reveals, but the nightmares are of a special sort: They all involve imagery from famous paintings. And the characters in them are on the attack. To conquer his fears, he believes he has to steal the paintings – 13 in all – in order to defuse their power.
This is the nutbrain premise for the extraordinary 94-minute animated film “Ruben Brandt, Collector,” directed by the Slovenian-born artist Milorad Krstić, who has lived in Hungary since 1989. This is his first animated feature, which is astonishing given its intricacy and inventiveness.
A combination of computer-generated and hand-drawn techniques, the film draws not only on vast swatches of animated film history but on the history of painting and movies, too. If you have an eye for this sort of thing, and a passing knowledge of famous art, the film, if nothing else, will provide a fun opportunity to pick out a pageant of imagery from some of the great treasures of art history. I haven’t seen anything quite like it since “Yellow Submarine,” which also drew on a vast catalog of artworks, although the flower-power radiance of that movie is very different from Krstić’s gonzo glow.
In his quest to find peace of mind, Ruben (voiced by Iván Kamarás) recruits four of his patients, all thieves, to pilfer the offending 13 canvases from many of the world’s great museums, including the Louvre, Tate, Uffizi, Hermitage, and Museum of Modern Art. The most daring of the quartet is Mimi (Gabriella Hámori), a gymnast, stuntwoman, and kleptomaniac with thick green eyeshadow who, early on, is shown making off with Cleopatra’s fan from the Louvre. The theft itself deliberately draws on the slithery art and jewel heist tropes of a million movies from “The Pink Panther” to “Ocean’s Eleven.”
The zoomy car chase sequence that ensues, with the intrepid private detective Mike Kowalski (Csaba Márton) in full pursuit, might have sprung from a vintage James Bond movie. The film’s relentless globe-hopping, which pulls in Paris, Tokyo, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Venice, and Rome, also conjures up a 007 vibe. There are ample helpings of film noir, too, complete with doomy shadows and rain-slicked streets.
Eventually an insurance company offers a $100 million reward to capture the thief it dubs “the Collector,” the reasoning being that, since these paintings are far too famous to fence, only a collector would steal them. Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” is one example (Ruben dreams that one of the diner’s denizens attacks him); so is Andy Warhol’s “Double Elvis” (Elvis pulls a gun on him). In another dream, Venus from Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” plunges Ruben into the sea, where he is besieged by the weedy sea witch from “The Little Mermaid.”
There’s always something to look at in this movie, although, like some of its Cubist characters, you may need triple eyes, or eyes in the back of your head, to take it all in. At times, the imagery overload can be exhausting. Like some of Terry Gilliam’s movies, the surplus of ideas may be too much of a good thing. But I would think that, for those who connect to it at all, a second viewing is almost mandatory.
And it’s not just the visual references that fly by. The film is replete with verbal in-jokes, too – the most nerdy-witty being its title. Ruben Brandt is an amalgam of Rubens and Rembrandt. (I admit it took me a while to register this one.)
There’s even some deft satire of the modern art world (defter than in the recent Netflix horror comedy “Velvet Buzzsaw,” which also dealt with the murderous power of imagery). A moment worthy of Mel Brooks comes when a couple stares at Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker,” and the wife remarks that he doesn’t look that smart. “All muscle, no brain.”
Is something more serious going on in this movie than a mere high-flying wingding? I have nothing against wingdings: Both “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” are terrific recent animated movies that are so visually and comically inventive that I sat there watching them in a state of rapt glee.
But “Ruben Brandt,” in its own wacko way, is also making a case for the power of art to both disturb and heal. When Ruben says that art is the key to the troubles of the mind, his meaning is double-edged. Ultimately, what I think Krstić is saying is that we need to look at the world’s glories whole. Beauty should not be locked away. Grade: A- (Rated R for nude images and some violence.)