This year has seen the release of two films based upon Edwin Abbott Abbott’s great 1884 novella Flatland: A Romance Of Many Dimensions. One calls itself Flatland: The Movie, and is a half hour-long animated educational film featuring the voices of Martin Sheen and Michael York, while the other is a lower-budgeted 99-minute long film called Flatland: The Film, directed by Ladd Ehlinger, Jr. This is an independent animated feature that has many good points, but just as many bad points.
Neither film is the first adaptation nor re-envisioning of Abbott’s brilliant Victorian era satire. The book itself has spawned literary sequels like Dutch writer Dionys Burger’s 1965 novel Sphereland, and Ian Stewart’s 2001 novel Flatterland. The latter book has also inspired a forthcoming film, while the original Flatland has had, before these two latest attempts, two previous incarnations - a 1965 cartoon narrated by Dudley Moore and a 1982 short film by mathematician Michelle Emmer. The very concept of a Flatland-like world was also used by astronomer Carl Sagan in an episode of his 1980 PBS television series Cosmos.
This version of the tale tries the most to update the film to a modern audience, and that is its chief failing. The original tale was called a Romance, and this updating removes that very concept from the story. While it follows much of the novella’s narrative - in describing the way Flatland works (although the original’s King is replaced by a President - who oddly still wears a crown), it departs severely from the original at its most crucial moment, once A Square is visited by A Sphere from Spaceland.
In this version, instead of a mystical guide, along the line of the Three Ghosts Of Christmas from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, A Sphere is CEO of Messiah, Inc. Okay... if the mere mention of that plot point has you rolling your eyes, you are not alone. And the attempts at satire only go downhill from there.
Instead of Sphere’s lifting up of Square into Spaceland being a religious experience, in this film it merely serves as a ‘wow’ moment used to lead into some cheap gags, jokes, and a display of Ehlinger’s animative chops. The story dissolves. Then there is some cheap and rather predictable satire of consumerism and the current Iraq War, which will severely date the film in coming years, as well as a not so funny portrayal of a Spaceland Senator Cube who sounds very much like Ted Kennedy.