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Review: In the Entrancing ‘Undone,’ Life Is But a Dream State

“Is this a dream?” Alma (Rosa Salazar) asks her father, Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), in the second episode of “Undone.”

“No,” he says. “Well, partly.”

It’s a reasonable question, and the answer makes more sense than you might assume. For starters, there is the little fact that Jacob is dead, killed one Halloween night years ago when Alma was a girl. Nonetheless, she’s been seeing and talking to him, ever since a car accident left her with a, shall we say, altered view of reality and time. Today becomes the past becomes her childhood becomes the future.

Her father’s description of her situation also describes the feel of the transfixing and lushly beautiful “Undone,” which comes to Amazon Prime Friday. It’s reality and it’s not reality, a grounded, naturalistic story that now and then slips its tether like a helium balloon and drifts into a half-dream state.

“Undone” creates this hypnagogic feeling as much through its appearance as through its story. As directed by Hisko Hulsing (“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”), it’s animated using rotoscoping, in which artists trace images on top of live-action footage (an effect used in films like Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly,” whose animation team contributes to “Undone”).

The effect of rotoscoping is a little like turning a dial that lowers the gravity by 25 percent or so. Even in mundane scenes, everything’s a little more buoyant. People move as if they’re living underwater.

This describes how Alma passes through her life pre-accident; at 28, she feels stuck in a rut. She shuffles from work at a day care center to semi-committed home life with her boyfriend, Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay) to sparring with her judgmental mother, Camila (Constance Marie), and her practical-minded sister, Becca (Angelique Cabral). Salazar, who digitally acquired a set of massive anime eyes in “Alita: Battle Angel,” gives Alma an air of sulky rebellion, a slacker in aspic.

After the accident, everything becomes more trippy, scary and exciting. It’s not just the visions of Jacob (played by Odenkirk in buttoned-down hipster mode). It’s the tendency of her reality to suddenly shatter — literally, the background will suddenly collapse like building blocks — and for her to appear in her own future, or her distant past, or someone else’s. It may be the hereditary legacy of her grandmother’s schizophrenia, or a shamanistic power.

“Undone” comes from Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg of Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman,” a credit that might lead viewers to expect a more directly cartoonish aesthetic and satirical tone.

But it’s closer in spirit to recent series like Amazon’s “Forever,” which probed the boundary of death to probe the meaning of life, and Netflix’s “Russian Doll,” whose protagonist navigated an altered state of reality as she came to terms with her past. (Purdy wrote some of the more adventurous, nonlinear “BoJack” episodes, including “Time’s Arrow” and “The Old Sugarman Place.”)

Like those series, the less said about the advancing plot the better. The story, such as it emerges, is part sci-fi, part family dramedy, part paranoid thriller, part murder mystery (one mystery being whether there has in fact been a murder).

But the series is driven by the dynamic between Alma, at 28 still in a stage of teenage rebellion against expectations, and Jacob, a melancholy dreamer himself, whose unconventional outlook she’s drawn to even as she still resents his disappearance.

Their partnership develops into a kind of bittersweet buddy comedy in the bardo. When Jacob tries to analogize Alma’s psychic adjustment — which she fears is insanity and he insists is a great power — to learning to drive a stick shift, she snaps, “If you want to teach your daughter to drive a stick, don’t die!”

“Undone” has humor and story enough to make it more than an art object. And it’s rooted in specificity, from Alma’s Mexican-Jewish heritage to the show’s vividly realized setting in San Antonio, Tex.

But make no mistake — it is magnificent art, a world opulently realized from its oil-painted backgrounds to its sound design. (Alma wears a cochlear implant; sometimes she disables it as an escape and the world takes on an eerie, submarine quality.) You don’t watch this show so much as fall into it.

People still find it weird and dissonant when an animated story is sad, especially in a TV series. But really, what better medium to work through grief, alienation and mourning — emotions that distort the world and lead old memories to leap out at you like jump scares in a haunted house?

And in fact, animation has been used to tell some of the year’s best stories about women and girls and their experience of trauma. In Netflix’s surreal, unfortunately short-lived “Tuca and Bertie,” Bertie, a songbird, returns to the camp where she was sexually abused as a child, embraces a young version of herself depicted as a silhouette, and takes strength from confronting the memory.

This August, in Cartoon Network’s mini-series, “Infinity Train” (available to stream through the network online), Tulip (Ashley Johnson), a 12-year-old coder grappling with her parents’ recent divorce, runs away from home and hops what turns out to be an unusual locomotive. Each car contains a unique world: one made of crystal, one ruled by sentient corgis, one inhabited by people made of water and a silver-tongued feline con artist (Kate Mulgrew).

The train is a puzzle Tulip must solve in order to get home. And the puzzle is Tulip herself. She takes on a series of quests that force her to face her own feelings of guilt and resentment, befriended by One-One (Jeremy Crutchley and Owen Dennis, the show’s creator), a tiny bipartite robot (one half optimistic, one half depressive), and the noble corgi king Atticus (Ernie Hudson).

Like “Adventure Time” or “Steven Universe,” “Infinity Train” is nominally a kids’ show, funny and raucous, but with a heart that speaks to all ages. The 10 11-minute episodes — which, like the train cars, seem to hold vastly more than their size would permit — enfold slapstick, loss, sacrifice and history’s most emotionally moving rendition of “Word Up” by Cameo.

The structure — a girl, with a dog and a mechanical creature, trying to escape home from a fantastical realm — may remind you of another tale, “The Wizard of Oz.” In “Undone,” Jacob tells Alma that he’s never understood that story. Dorothy’s transported from “a normal, boring life” to a land full of magic and possibility. Why would she want to go home?

The question taunts Alma as she wonders whether her altered state of mind is a blessing or madness. But for the viewer, it’s an easy call. There’s no place like “Undone.”


Friday on Amazon

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