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April and the Extraordinary World
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by Jay Seaver

"Extraordinary, twisted, fantastic."
5 stars

The French title of this film, "Avril et le Monde Truqué", actually translates to "April in the Twisted World", which may be more fitting, because as much as it is extraordinary and a delight to watch, it's a genuinely weird movie. It's got something eye-catching, funny, and thrilling in just about every frame. It's a shame that this style of animated adventure has never been popular in the United States, because it's a terrific fantasy that merits a greater big-screen audience than it will get here.

It kicks off in 1870, with Napoleon III paying a visit to Dr. Franklin, looking for a serum vitae to make his soldiers invulnerable in the coming war with Prussia. Things do not go well, setting history on a different course, and come 1931, son Prosper "Pops" Franklin (voice of Jean Rochefort), along with grandson Paul Franklin (voice of Olivier Gourmet) and his wife Annette (voice of Macha Grenon), are among the few fugitive scientists who have not disappeared or been recruited to work on weapons by the government, and a raid leaves Avril, the daughter of Paul & Annette, and her talking cat Darwin (voice of Philippe Katerine) on their own. Ten years later, Avril (voice of Marion Cotillard) secretly continues her family's work to try and find the serum to revitalize Darwin, not realizing she's being tailed by petty thief Julius (voice of Marc-André Grondin) and more sinister forces.

Though the story is credited to Benjamin Legrand and co-director Franck Ekinci, the big name in the credits for some will be Jacques Tardi, a legendary creator of bandes dessinés credited with graphic design. His signature is on every frame, even if the style is softer than Tardi's usual (despite Avril being a no-nonsense heroine cut from the same cloth as Adèle Blanc-Sec); he's been doing steampunk comics since before it had that name, and knows how to make it delightful in its ornamented grandeur - twin Eiffel Towers which act as the terminus for a tramway that runs all the way to Berlin! - while not losing track of how such a stream-powered world would be strangled with smoke. Gas makes are on every corner, even on dogs out for a walk. He and the rest of the filmmakers create a world of wonders, but not one that is scrubbed clean.

It's not a grim one, either; for every rat with tiny camera-goggles skittering in corners, there's Pops's "meta-mansion" or another secret hideout. There are moving walkways and flying machines, cameos by famous scientists, offset by a closet full of the same dress in different sizes that Pops has dutifully had made for his missing granddaughter. Even the antagonists are kind of delightful in their grandiose absurdity, predictable from the start but no less entertaining when revealed. Their plans are actually a much more magnificent take on a familiar supervillain rant, actually worth a moment to catch ones breath when revealed before getting back to the intricate fantasy of the technology used to execute it.

Those revealed masterminds actually give the movie a nice boost as they move closer to the forefront in the film's second half. Legrand and Ekinci write Rodrigue and Chimène as characters rather than obstacles, and the voice-work by Bouli Lanners and Anne Coesens brings that to the fore. Olivier Gourmet and Macha Grenon get a similar opportunity as Avril's parents, adding just enough complexity to situations to keep the adventure from being mechanical. Both pairings are part of a pattern where the film's women are at least equal partners with the men even if they are not totally in sync, something very much the case with Avril and Julius as well. Marc-André Grondin does good voice work as the young man drawn with a permanent slouch and an expression that says he's in over his head though not actually dumb, though not quite so memorable as how Jean Rochefort's usually jocular voice sometimes seems to sag along with Pops's exaggerated whiskers, or how Philippe Katerine makes Darwin feel like either a playful young kitten or an aging one who doesn't want to be bothered depending on his state despite acting human enough in some ways. They're all often paired with Marion Cotillard's Avril, and Cotillard and the animators go for a heroine not often seen in American animated films - a young woman whom you're not going to describe as "cute", but still plenty fallible and emotional, In her own way. Cotillard makes Avril sound young but also kind of intimidating, even as she spends a fair amount of time failing and stumbling.

There is also a version with an English-language soundtrack playing some showings at American theaters. I opted for the original French, and though distributor GKIDS has done good dubs of late, I'm not sure how much overlap there is between kids too young to read subtitles and those old enough for the big-time action.

And despite the sometimes rounded designs, this is an action/adventure with plenty of peril and high stakes. Ekinci and fellow director Christian Desmares stack one big action scene on top of another, keeping things moving very quickly though seldom actually reaching the point where it's frantic, keeping things clear despite the great detail the screen will often be crowded with. They're good at sticking a joke or two in without their offbeat French comedy undercutting the roller-coaster ride, knowing to slow down when there's an emotion to be considered but not when they're just giving alternate-history lessons, zeroing in on the right pace throughout the movie. The animation is nicely done, fluid but not artificial-looking even as hand-drawn and machine-rendered objects collide, with the filmmakers preserving Tardi's gray and brown palette, though with room for spans of color that don't feel out of place.

Though not actually based upon a BD (the one out in France is an adaptation), it's still arguably one of the most vibrant and exciting comic book movies to come out in the last few years. It may be a bit too intense for some younger children, but adult genre fans should enjoy it just as much, especially if they've enjoyed some of the other films that have been adapted from our inspired by European comics.

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originally posted: 04/13/16 12:34:01
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2015 Fantastic Fest series, click here.

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  01-Apr-2016 (PG)
  DVD: 02-Aug-2016

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