April and the Extraordinary World (2015) / Animation-Sci Fi
aka Avril et Le Monde Truque
aka April and the Twisted World
aka April and the Rigged World
MPAA Rated: PG for action/peril including gunplay, some thematic elements and rude humor
Running Time: 105 min.
Cast (voices): Marion Cotillard, Jean Rochefort, Philippe Katerine, Olivier Gourmet, Marc-Andre Grondin, Bouli Lanners, Anne Coesens, Macha Grenon
English version: Angela Galuppo, Paul Giamatti, Tony Hale, Susan Sarandon, J.K. Simmons
Director: Christian Desmares, Franck Ekinci
Screenplay: Franck Ekinci, Benjamin Legrand (based on the graphic novel by Jacques Tardi)
Review published April 21, 2016
Comic book legend Jacques Tardi's graphic novel provides the inspiration for this loose big screen adaptation from France, from screenwriters Franck Ekinci (who-codirects with Christian Desmares. the first feature for both) and Benjamin Legrand (Kaena: The Prohecy), with graphic design work on the film by Tardi himself. It's a steampunk alternate world where Earth's has progressed little scientifically since the Industrial Revolution, primarily because scientists have been outlawed, and they've begun disappearing en masse.
Most of the film is set in that alternate Paris in 1941, under the rule of Napoleon V, where much of the power supplied to the world comes from pre-fossil fuels like coal, charcoal and wood from the rapidly dwindling forests of the world. April (Cotillard, Macbeth) is an inventive orphaned woman with a smart-alecky talking cat named Darwin (Katerine, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life). She lost her scientist parents at a young age when it was discovered that they had possibly invented something called the Ultimate Serum, a chemical cocktail that makes its imbiber rejuvenated, cured of disease, and virtually immortal -- something that could tip the global war for resources in France's favor should they be able to create their own invincible super-soldiers. April is being closely monitored from several interested parties in case she happens to stumble on the potent concoction, or invent it on her own, with the tenacious French policeman, Gaspard Pizoni (Lanners, Rust and Bone), on orders to observe her every move. April makes that discovery, but finds an even larger one emerges that threatens to shift the balance of world power in an entirely unexpected direction.
The "Extraordinary World" of the title is a bit limited by its modest production budget, which relegates many of the "Tintin"-esque visuals, mostly simple 2D with some 3D-rendered aircraft, all in a muted color palette of greys and browns, to what you could find in a straight-to-video release in the United States if not for the exquisite nature of Tardi's designs, inspired to a large extent from the works of Jules Verne. Nevertheless, it's more inventive in plot than most animated features, and contains more impressive vocal talent, whether in the French language original or the English dub. The humor is mild, mostly relying on cutesy moments involving an exuberant Darwin the cat, or in the physical slapstick provided by the gruff Pizoni -- nothing terribly witty but genially presented.
It's an intelligent film, and certainly crafted by people with skill, and certainly those who enjoy reading into the satirical elements left over from Tardi's works will enjoy this more, but for traditional movie-goers who don't expect to do a great deal of the heavy lifting to make the story more interesting to them, the emotional components of the adventure will likely remain aloof. There's also a more obvious environmental message explored regarding fossil fuels, exploitation of natural resources, and the cost of industrialization (wars and pollution, most prevalently) that resonates today, though little that hasn't been explored in other cinematic science-fiction works over the last 50 years. It also toys with the notion that some of the shift to fossil fuels and nuclear energy, which have their own issues, might have led to an even faster decline toward world instability, and that we need our scientists to continue their quest to innovate so that we don't get too reliant on finite energy resources. Hopefully, one day future generations will look back at our own reliance on ecologically risky fuel sources and see them as quaint and as out-of-step as we might the days of the Industrial Revolution today.
While the visual world of Tardi's creation is certainly inventive, unfortunately, as a film, April and the Extraordinary World fails to come together as a compelling story, and fails to make its characters anywhere as interesting as the main premise. As a result, it drags for most of the run time, occasionally coming up with a new and interesting visual take on its steampunk-y world, only to fall back on rudimentary story elements, lifeless turns that aren't befitting such a sumptuous presentation. Hayao Miyazaki covers much of this territory, and does it far better, offering more of an emotional connection to his characters to invest you in their plights against the many ills of the world we all live in. Like the many wild coal-driven contraptions found within, April and the Extraordinary World is a marvel of design, but under the hood, it's still a bunch of lifeless, mechanical parts.
©2016 Vince Leo