Dreams are obviously enjoying a cinematic renaissance, what with Mulholland Drive and now Richard Linklater’s strikingly original Waking Life. The film’s protagonist, played by Wiley Wiggins from Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, sleepwalks around — sometimes he appears to float — asking essential questions about existence, identity, the nature of the universe and whether it’s a big, stupid risk to make a plotless movie about dreams. That the Texas-based Linklater, celebrated for his 1991 debut Slacker, chose to express his ideas through animation shows he has guts. That he pulls off the innovative feat with hypnotic assurance is nothing short of amazing.
This isn’t your dad’s animation, or even Disney’s. Having first shot the film digitally with live actors in Texas and New York, Linklater and art director Bob Sabiston asked thirty-one artists to computer-paint over that footage in their own distinct styles, assigning different characters and vignettes to each artist. The result is a magic-carpet ride the likes of which has not been seen since the head-tripping days of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Yellow Submarine.
But don’t label Waking Life “For Stoners Only.” Linklater’s cerebral provocations allow for tickling visuals — check out that car-boat — and lively humor. Listen to pillow talk about reincarnation from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy of Linklater’s Before Sunrise. Or if the verbal heat gets too much, take a cue from philosopher Timothy “Speed” Levitch, who “goes salsa dancing with my confusion.” Linklater, gifted with the spark of a true film pioneer, shouldn’t be confused about Waking Life. It works like a dream.