Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Review: "April and the Extraordinary World"

A bold mix of steampunk fantasy and historical revisionism, “April and the Extraordinary World” is a French/Belgian/Canadian production that’s decidedly different from the sort of animation we’re used to seeing in the U.S. – for both good and ill.

It’s about April, a girl separated from her scientist parents in a 1931 version of France where the Napoleonic era never ended. Europe is united but a grim, dank place still powered by steam and coal, fighting a war with the Americas for control of the Canadian forests. Ten years later and now a young woman (with the voice of Marion Cotillard), she becomes the red herring everyone’s chasing after.

It’s a world of talking animals and laser weapons but also retrograde technology and sclerotic morality. All scientists are expected to labor for the good of the empire, which is secretly controlled by genetically mutated lizards that use giant exo-skeletons to dominate the humans.

Tonally, the film is an odd and not entirely pleasing blend. The simple, old-school animation style, keystone cop pratfalls and straightforward characterizations would seem aimed at kids, but I don’t know how much those under age 12 would respond to this world.

The dragon-robots can be quite scary, whereas the humans act as the comic relief. There’s a scampy talking cat named Darwin (voice of Philippe Katerine), the result of experimentation by April’s mom, dad and grandfather (Macha Grenon, Olivier Gourmet and Jean Rochefort, respectively).

At one point he gets blasted through the chest and dies, which would be quite disturbing to small children.

Darwin is revived, for the second time, with the Ultimate Serum, something April’s parents were working on for the Empire before they escaped. It was intended as a super-soldier formula for the emperor’s armies, but had unintended consequences on the test animals. Now April has the last batch of the serum, so she’s being hunted.

Chief among those seeking her is Pizoni (Bouli Lanners), a mustachioed police inspector who let her family escape from his clutches when she was a girl. He seems to burn with a Javert-like unholy obsession, but he’s more bumbling than fearsome.

Tagging along is Julius (Marc-Andre Grondin), a street thief recruited by Pizoni to shadow April, but who gets caught up in her adventures and falls for her. She resists, then reciprocates, in the unalterable cinematic tradition.

There are some dashing and imaginative action sequences. I liked how Pops built an entire mansion that’s actually a vehicle/weapon, crawling about on spider legs and even swimming underwater. There are also hybrid helicopter/airplanes and a whole island of gadgets a la “The Incredibles.”

In the end I liked the idea for the movie than the film itself. It has a great premise that just wasn’t executed in a very satisfying way.

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