The opportunity for CGI and animation to completely immerse the viewer in an imagined world gets fully realized in a way few films achieve with Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci’s wondrous “April and the Extraordinary World.” Set in a steampunk version of Paris, this French import marries both style and substance in its efforts to present a wholly original vision adapted from the work of graphic novelist Jacques Tardi, creator of “Adèle Blanc-Sec” (which itself was turned into a 2010 film directed by Luc Besson).
“April and the Extraordinary World” is kind enough to give details on its imagined history, as much of its audience may not be familiar with the Franco-Prussian War and what its absence might mean to the larger timeline presented. In the 1870s, Napoleon III has tasked Gustave (voiced by Jean Rochefort) with creating an army of super soldiers. The experiment goes wrong, killing the leader and setting Gustave’s creations free to wreak havoc. The greatest minds in the world — Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and more — begin disappearing over the following decades, which leaves the world dependent on steam power instead of electricity and other modern inventions. The steam-driven Paris we’re left with is a dystopian one, lacking the romance sometimes associated with the subgenre as well as the city itself. There are quirky technical marvels, like a cable car that connects the French capital with Berlin that departs from a station between twin Eiffel Towers. These inventions lose a bit of their shine when it’s revealed that the passage takes a “comfortable 82 hours” and that the dependence on coal has all-but-eliminated trees from the world.
Fast forward to 1931, where Gustave is joined by two scientists in his family, who are on the brink of discovering a longevity serum that would save and extend lives. As they close in on their discovery, they mysteriously disappear as many of their predecessors have. Their young daughter April manages to escape not only the force that took her parents, but she also avoids being sent to an orphanage and survives on her own. The film picks up her story in 1941, where a grown-up April (Marion Cotillard) is a plucky scientist who is continuing the work of both her parents and her grandfather Gustave, living a solitary life, and avoiding the policeman Pizono (Bouli Lanners) who is still tracking her down. Her only friend is a talking cat named Darwin (Philippe Katerine), whose presence provides both humor and a needed silliness to the sometimes heavy proceedings. However, April and Darwin are soon set off on an adventure through the soot-filled streets of Paris where she discover the truth about the disappearance of her parents, culminating in an imaginative climax, as they encounter everything from robotic spy rats to an armored walking house.
Written by co-director Ekinci and Benjamin Legrand, “April and the Extraordinary World” excels at world-building, establishing its elaborate, fascinating setting while it demonstrates its effects on the central characters. Even though it focuses on coal as a power source, it also offers commentary on where the real world’s current dependence on fossil fuels may lead. There’s great depth and texture in the animated universe it presents, particularly in its depiction of the city. It takes a less realistic approach to its simply drawn human –– and feline –– inhabitants, but with great background detail and unique character work, the film’s hand-drawn style sets it apart from most of its contemporaries. And though the densely and elaborately plotted movie sometimes lags, it’s an enjoyable film for kids and adults alike, with enough weird wonders to keep the youngest audience members enthralled as well as enough complexity for grown-ups.
Distributed stateside by GKids, the company known for bringing Studio Ghibli’s films from directors like Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata to the U.S., “April and the Extraordinary World” feels like a hybrid of Miyazaki’s work in films like “Howl’s Moving Castle” and Herge’s “The Adventures of Tintin,” as well as being its own beast entirely. The French-language cast is top notch, with Cotillard, Rochefort and Katerine as standouts, while an English-language dub is also available, with prestige talent Paul Giamatti, Tony Hale, Susan Sarandon, and J.K. Simmons providing the voices.
Its original French title “Avril et le monde truque” could perhaps be better translated as “April and the Twisted World.” And indeed, there is plenty to marvel at in Tardi’s darker, alternate universe Paris, one that’s best watched with open minds and mouths agape at the incredible visual and storytelling imagination on display. [B+]