Directed by Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci, the new
French feature April and the
Extraordinary World is a pleasant, often entertaining film. But it’s also a
very derivative film, with elements borrowed The Iron Giant, Up, Tomorrowland, The Rabbi’s Cat and Howl’s
The convoluted plot of April
unfolds in a world in which the Franco-Prussian War never took place. The
Bonapartes remained on the throne of France and modern technology never
developed. Jacques Tardi has designed an alternate Paris of steam-powered
trains and factories and kitschy Napoleon III-style monuments.
April Franklin is the youngest member of a clan of
scientists. One of her ancestors ordered to create a serum to transform French soldiers
into deadly killing machines that could win the imminent Franco-Prussian War.
An ill-timed visit to the lab by Napoleon III and his top general produced an
explosion that killed both men and loosed forces no one quite understands. The
new Emperor, Napoleon IV, signed a peace treaty with Prussia, causing a radical
shift in history and science.
In 1931, April is a small child, watching her parents
working to create the serum that will prevent aging and cure any disease. Her
closest friend is her talking cat Darwin. (No one knows why Darwin can talk;
“he just does.”) An ill-planned raid by the gendarmes, forces the family to
flee. An explosion seems to kill April’s parents; her inventor-grandfather is
April grows up on her own, hiding from the police, stealing
to feed herself and Darwin, and trying to carry on her parents’ research. She
acquires a dubious admirer when she meets Julius, a pickpocket and street
performer who’s been blackmailed into working for the fanatic police officer
Pizoni. April and Julius find themselves in deeper trouble than either of them
bargained for, forcing them to ally in an elaborate caper.
On the lam from Pizoni, the duo discovers that world’s
greatest scientists are being forced to work for a clan hyper-intelligent
lizards, led by reptiles who escaped from the raid on the Franklins’ lab in 19th
century. Bolstered by mechanical exo-skeletons, the lizards have the greatest
human minds attempting to duplicate the original serum. The goal is to make themselves
immortal and to counter the damage humanity has wreaked on the world with their
coal and charcoal driven industries. To no one’s surprise, April, Julius and
Darwin save the day, the Franklin family and humanity.
April and the Extraordinary
World reportedly took six years to make, so it may be unfortunate
coincidences that the climax feels so close to Tomorrowland, and the coda plays like a watered-down tribute to Up, with April and Julius as the couple who’ve
spent happy decades together.
Obviously made on a modest budget, April can’t compete with the epic visuals of the great Japanese Steampunk
features like Otomo’s Steamboy or
Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky. In some
scenes, the filmmakers make up for it with clever visuals. When Grandfather’s
house sprouts legs and walks away from a corps of attackers, it lacks the
ramshackle fascination of the title structure in Howl’s Moving Castle, a wonderfully complex machine that always
seemed on the verge of falling apart. But when it comes to the Seine, the
modest house swims away, using a modified breaststroke, provoking surprised
laughter from the audience. Tardi’s re-envisioning of Paris, this time with
twin Eiffel Towers, is clever and imaginative.
The film’s ecological message is more timely than subtle,
and April is an agreeable, if lightweight,
diversion. Although Gkids prepared an English dub with Susan Sarandon, Paul
Giamatti and J.K. Simmons, April and the
Extraordinary World was screened for the press in the original French, with
the vocal cast led by Marion Cotillard.