by Jacob Mouradian
Spirit-like apparitions and evil tyrants set in the Big Apple? I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.
PHANTOM BOY, the new film from French animation studio Folimage and the second film from the Academy Award-nominated duo of Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol (UNE VIE DE CHAT, or in English, “A CAT IN PARIS”), is a definite improvement for the directors but only by a few small, ethereal steps.
Set against a multicolored New York backdrop, a dastardly man with a distorted face (voiced by Jean-Pierre Marielle) takes the city for ransom by threatening to destroy their infrastructure with a deadly computer virus unless his incredulous demands are met. Every available cop on the force is sent after him, including the down-on-his-luck Lieutenant Alex (Edouard Baer) whose attempt to capture the villain and his cronies nearly turns fatal.
Meanwhile at one of the city’s hospitals, a young cancer patient named Leo (Marcus D’Angelo) discovers a strange phenomenon: that one’s soul can temporarily leave their body after experiencing physical trauma. While most souls eventually relocate their host bodies, Leo finds that he can control his soul’s movements at will. Besides utilizing his power for personal reasons — such as eavesdropping on his family to make sure they’re holding up or joy-riding the jetstreams above the city — he is ultimately altruistic as he wrangles other hospital patients’ souls to lead them back to their own bodies before they wander off too far. In fact, this is how Leo meets Alex and learns about the case.
The two decide to team up, coupling Leo’s powers with the investigative journalist Mary (Audrey Tautou), to bring down The Man with the Broken Face (he’s honestly never given any other name). But as time runs out and Leo’s powers start to wane, the team wrestles with their actual chances of survival in the shadow of New York’s impending Dark Ages.
Whereas the animation in UNE VIE DE CHAT was clunky and stagnant and its very design was so different that it was occasionally off-putting, PHANTOM BOY employs a more detailed approach to both its visuals and mechanics. The motion is more fluid and visually appealing, and the film’s chalky pastel-like style and strange character designs (are a lot of the humans supposed to look like they have snake eyes?) doesn’t feel quite as stark as in their debut. Whether it’s now a personal familiarity with their style or more detailed care is given to it this time around is anyone’s guess (and it’s undoubtedly a subjective gripe to begin with), but it’s an improvement nonetheless.
The establishment of the rules of Leo’s powers unfold more at the plot’s convenience than at that of the audience, and along with the general world-building the film seems to have a fast-and-loose quality to its structure. But Gagnol and Felicioli manage to keep the action scenes that showcase Leo’s powers really entertaining and suspenseful, allowing the shaky execution to be temporarily forgotten.
The characters are more compelling here, as well, particularly the friendship that develops between Alex and Leo. Leo gives Alex undying admiration for his line of work and Alex eventually comes around to appreciate Leo’s gift. This makes the climax all the more heartrending, because regardless of how incredible the two see each other’s powers and abilities they aren’t invincible; they still have their limits.
But regardless of its high-flying ambitions it can’t escape its persistent faults.
One thing that Gagnol and Felicioli can’t seem to do is create compelling villains. While their protagonists experience complex emotional development their villains keep getting shafted with flat, cookie-cutter archetypes and over-the-top motives that are utterly laughable. The Man with the Broken Face feels like a Dr. Evil-type parody who’s way too eccentric to be taken seriously. Granted, while The Man with the Broken Face isn’t thrown some egregiously ham-fisted introspection at the last minute like the villain in UNE VIE DE CHAT, he’s still just an amalgamation of spy-genre clichés that feels tiresome more than terrifying.
Sure, this cartoonish characterization can be countered with the “well it’s just a cartoon” argument, but such rhetoric flies in the face of the dramatic weight that the rest of this film carries. Gagnol and Felicioli do a better job juggling the multiple tones with PHANTOM BOY than they did in their previous work, but it’s still jarring to have scenes of lighthearted, goofy slapstick just a few minutes away from scenes with gunfights and threats of torture.
PHANTOM BOY’s big ideas show the promise of its studio and its directors, but mish-mashed villains and uneven tones continue to drag their stories down. If only these flaws could be exorcised then they may float a bit higher, but for now it’s just wishful thinking.