I don’t see a lot of foreign films, and I see even fewer animated foreign films. I have seen my share of Miyazaki of course, but other than those, it’s rare. I still haven’t seen Persepolis, if you can believe it. But when the opportunity strikes, I’m willing to try it out.
April and the Extraordinary World is a French animated movie based on a graphic novel of the same name. The movie paints a picture of a different sort of world, contriving circumstances to create a faux steampunk Earth. Since the late 1800’s, the greatest scientists from around the world have vanished mysteriously, causing tremendous ripple effects. No Einstein or Fermi. There’s no radio, electricity, or even the combustion engine. The world relies on coal for all energy, and have begun wars over wood to create charcoal.
As to be expected from a French movie, France is the focal point of everything. In 1941 where no World Wars have occurred, but France is in the midst of a long battle with the Americas, Paris is filled with steam and smoke. Instantly the movie shows a fascinating different version of Paris, with flying blimps and coal-powered cars. It’s a dark, regressive aesthetic. In this Paris, all scientists are drafted into helping the military, so we spend time with one family that’s breaking the law.
The Franklin family, led by elder Pops (Jean Rochefort), his son Paul and his wife Annette, develop their mysterious Ultimate Serum which cures all ills. They also have a young daughter, April, and their talking cat Darwin (Philippe Katerine), made intelligent with their science. But when the police find them, led by boorish Pizoni (Bouli Lanners), the escape leads to trouble. Pops disappears, but then April’s parents are seemingly lost when a weird black cloud attacks a transport vehicle.
April survives with Darwin, and eventually runs away from the state, becoming older and voiced by Marion Cotillard, as she continues to develop her family’s Ultimate Serum with the help of an ever older Darwin. Eventually it all comes together with lowlife Julius (Marc-André Grondin) intersecting with their lives, and the bizarre truth behind it all is revealed.
The film is animated beautifully, in a cartoonish but kinetic way, so that the frequent action scenes are easy to follow but always exciting. The characters are drawn distinctively and without a lot of over the top exaggeration in features, lending a sense of realism to the otherworldly setting. Steampunk is a weird genre, because it usually implies a world that doesn’t make sense. Here, science is held back by design, so although it’s contrived, it’s internally consistent.
I wouldn’t say the story is particularly amazing, but it’s the character work and animation that elevates it. These characters are mostly archetypes, but they are good ones. Some pieces don’t work unless you hold back your cynicism about love at first sight or massive coincidences. It’s a movie after all about a steampunk world with a talking cat. Speaking of whom, Darwin was my favorite character. Brilliantly voiced by Philippe Katerine, Darwin has a delightfully snarky personality who’s predictable but still loads of fun.
Pizoni is probably the weakest character, being a clichéd kind of police villain, but he quickly fades while the real adventure begins. There are a lot of clever bits spread throughout the movie, but the production design is really killer. It’s just a very well thought out world, an Earth familiar but foreign in the same way, very innovative.
April, voiced by Marion Cotillard, is a bit of a cypher at times, but her adventure was exciting. It built over time, with new escalations brought into the movie at the right sort of pacing. It’s a very different sort of style from animated American movies, although it had a very Miyazaki vibe to it. I don’t know how much attention this will get outside of France, but I definitely enjoyed it.
It does get a bit violent at times, but honestly, no more than a classic Disney film. Not for the really young ones, but if you’re okay with subtitles, check this one out.