by Jacob Mouradian
When topics such as “steampunk”, “talking animals”, and “exotic landscapes” are brought up in the same breath, there’s a good chance it’s in the context of some recent fan convention or an obscure fantasy webcomic. Rarely would all of these descriptors apply to a single cinematic work, yet somehow APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD defies those assumptions.
Based on the graphic novel by French cartoonist Jacques Tardi, the film is set in an alternate universe where Napoleon V is emperor by the early 1940s and foreign relations are strained. Scientific progress is stagnated, either on account of scientists being rounded up by the government to forcefully develop new types of warheads or by disappearing beneath cloudy pretenses. As a result the entire world continues to run on coal-powered steam, leaving the planet devoid of natural resources and littered with exaggerated and antiquated machinery.
Separated from her chemist parents a decade prior, April (voiced by Marion Cotillard), a budding chemist herself, secretly continues their work: manufacturing a longevity serum to boost humanity’s overall health against the increasingly harsh atmosphere. Along with her linguistic feline, Darwin (Philippe Katerine) — himself an unintended result of her parents’ experimentation — April must navigate through the dark corners of Paris, avoiding run-ins with a vengeful police inspector (Bouli Lanners), a shifty teenage boy (Marc-André Grondin), and other mysterious political bodies who would use the serum in less-than-egalitarian ways.
Making their feature-length directorial debuts, Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci bring to life a strikingly visual pastiche of fantastical style and daring inventiveness. Besides being animated so fluidly that the images flow from frame to frame, the world that the duo build — along with co-screenwriter Benjamin Legrand — is as intricate as the panels of a comic, allowing the eye to flutter to each little detail without ever losing sight of the central story and primary action. From grandiose contraptions such as locomotive-sized gondola lifts and subterranean worlds to smaller details like public displays of affection via gas masks and tiny cyborg-like animals, the film is an absolute smorgasbord of peculiar creativity. Besides being derived from an actual graphic novel, the comic-like look of the film also comes from the influence of animation studio Je Suis Bien Content, responsible for Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s adaptation of Satrapi’s comic, PERSEPOLIS. Similar to PERSEPOLIS, APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD benefits from simplistic yet expressive character animation, allowing for the subtle conveyance of emotion to loudly resonate off of the gorgeous backgrounds and action sequences. The characters are complex and nuanced yet they also maintain their animated sense of absurdity, and in a world filled with such bizarre constructions such opposing characteristics coexist surprisingly well.
Yet despite all of its ingenuity the film can’t seem to escape certain tropes. The plot, while still compelling and well-paced, doesn’t really deviate from those of other science-fiction epics — especially in terms of both its moral message and social satire, neither being as hard-hitting nor as biting as other entries in this realm have proven themselves to be. In addition, certain other points are underdeveloped and feel shoehorned in rather than actually beneficial to the plot, which can’t help but detract from the film’s sense of originality.
Fortunately its setbacks are easily overcome by nearly every visual aspect and APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD powers through, full steam ahead. What’s sure to be an early front-runner for year-end animation awards, Desmares and Ekinci’s piece is an incredible dive into an alternate history, offering a hundred marvels a minute that would be a shame to leave to the dusts of time.