April and the Extraordinary World
Directed by: Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci.
Written by: Franck Ekinci and Benjamin Legrand based on the graphic novel by Jacques Tardi.
Starring: Angela Galuppo (April), Tony Hale (Darwin), Tony Robinow (Pops), Mark Camacho (Paul), Macha Grenon (Annette), Tod Fennell (Julius), Paul Giamatti (Pizoni), Susan Sarandon (Chimene), J.K. Simmons (Rodrigue).
April and the Extraordinary World is that rare animated film for children that respects their intelligence and offers more than a candy colored adventure, with the latest in computer animation, full of action scenes and lame jokes. To be sure, that type of film has its place, and can rise about most of its ilk – this saw has seen both Zootopia and Finding Dory for instance – but a film like April and the Extraodrinary World is a different animal altogether. It’s wholly unsurprising that the film originates in Europe – France to be exact – where the animators know they won’t be able to compete with Disney or Pixar animation, so they tend to make films like this – that have a retro feel and look to them, that tell interesting stories, with beautiful animation. This is the type of Hollywood never makes anymore – although to be fair, they never really did.
The film is an alternate history – starting in the 1800s, where Napoleon dies in a science experiment gone wrong, instead of the way he really did – the first in a long line of Napoleon’s who rule France. He had a scientist working on the “Ultimate Serum” that would make his soldiers invincible. Things go awry, there is an explosion, the serum is lost – but two lizards, who were subjects of the experiment escape. Over the intervening decades, all the great scientific minds the world over disappear – and the world continues to rely on coal power far longer than it does in our timeline. It picks up in 1931 – where the descendants of the scientist who came up with that original serum are still trying to recreate it – the government, of course, wants it and come for it – leaving the intelligent child April an orphan, who lives with her talking cat Darwin, and continuing to search for the serum. Her parents have been killed, and her grandfather has disappeared. Most of the action takes place in 1941 – when all of these different storylines come together.
This may sound like it’s a complicated story – but it really isn’t (seriously, the film may get through the setup quicker than I did). In many ways, April and the Extraordinary World contains many of the hallmarks of animation stories – a plucky orphan, a talking animal sidekick, etc. – except that the movie never quite gives into those clichés in the same way American animation always seems to. Darwin, the talking cat, is not a wisecracking source of comic relief – although he can be quite funny – but in some ways the most intelligent character in the film, and ultimately the bravest as well. April is a spirited, plucky, intelligent role model for young girls – imagine it, a girl who is good at science! – and even if she is given a love interest in the film, she never becomes a damsel in distress in need of saving. The film doesn’t call attention to its feminism, as some recent Disney movies do, but that just makes it that much stronger to the viewer.
The film has been released in North American in both the original French, with subtitles, and dubbed into English. Normally, I would always go with the French subtitled, but my wife wanted to see this (while drinking wine), so we opted for the English language version. While I do think the French would have been preferable, the English language cast does a fine, if not extraordinary job. The advantage of not having to read subtitles, is that you get to spend the entire movie looking at the beautiful animation, which creates a world that is retro in some respects, and futuristic in others (in that way, it kind of reminded me of recent films like The Double and High-Rise, which play like the past vision of what the future would be, which I love, even if from our vantage point in the present, we know it didn’t end up that way). The filmmakers are Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci – who are making their feature debut – and its quite stunning.
April and the Extraordinary World is a necessary tonic for parents like me who watch a lot of bad animation with their children – from the movies we go to, to a steady diet of Disney Jr. shows (some of which I like, some I despise) – so a film this lively, fun, entertaining, original and intelligent is a welcome relief. I wish my oldest daughter was just a little older (she’ll be 5 next week) – because I would love to introduce to animation like this – if for no other reason than to show her that it can be so much more than what American culture says it is.