From the makers of the excellent Persepolis comes April and the Extraordinary World, sure to be one of 2016's best animated movies, and also very weird in a good kind of way.
Based on the graphic novel by Jacques Tardi and directed by Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci, the film features an alternate universe where the world is reliant on steam and terrorized by lizard-robot people. Yeah, like I said, it's weird.
Things start in 1870, where Napoleon III, on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, has enlisted the services of a scientist working on an Ultimate Serum. This serum is meant to make an army of monkeys invincible and indestructible. However, the scientist has only managed to get lizards to talk, and this is dealt with in a severe manner. A catastrophic event changes the course of human history.
The action jumps to 1931. Scientists like Einstein and Pasteur have disappeared and, without them around, some great things like radio and various energy sources are never invented. The pre-teen title character observes her grandpa Prosper (a.k.a. Pops, voiced by Jean Rochefort), her father Paul (Olivier Gourmet) and mother Annette (Macha Grenon) trying to create an Ultimate Serum, but their intent is not for an invincible army. They wish to make all life on the planet free of disease.
Scientific advances are once again interrupted by the authorities, with April and her talking cat Darwin (Philippe Katerine) escaping. The action then jumps ahead to 1941, where most of the action takes place and April is voiced by the great Marion Cotillard.
The world is stuck in its place, reliant on steam and coal for power. There are two Eiffel Towers and it takes eighty hours to travel just a few miles. April, like those before her, continues to work on the Ultimate Serum, but her true motive is to keep Darwin the cat alive. He's a little worse for wear (he's getting on in years), and the only friend she's ever had. Of course, she gets caught up in political intrigue too involving the creation of Ultimate Serum and those hitherto mentioned lizard-robot people.
Again ... April and the Extraordinary World is really, really weird.
It's also really, really great, thanks to a funny script by Ekinci and Benjamin Legrand. There are little touches throughout, little instances that you don't expect in an animated movie. In this respect, the film reminds me a bit of The Triplets of Belleville, one of my all time favorite animated movies.
There's also a real sense that anything can happen in this movie. It's not afraid to be bizarre as all heck, and even a little nasty at times. This is a movie where a beloved character dies multiple, sometimes violent deaths, after all. It's not an animated movie for the kids. It's also not an animated movie for adults who don't want their brain stretched out while watching it. The movie gets a little complicated with detail at times, and you have to pay attention throughout.
Traditionally drawn, the animation has a nice, dirty, old-timey look to it. It doesn't have the sleekness of a Pixar animated movie. It looks like something that could've come out in the time that the movie takes place. It's the very definition of steampunk adventure.
This is the feature directing debut for both Desmares and Ekinci, and here's to hoping it's just the first in a string of many other movies. With greats like Miyazaki slowing down (but perhaps not retired just yet), animation is looking for great directors who tell their stories by traditional means. These directors could be heir to the throne of great traditional animation directors.
I'm a sucker for most Disney and Pixar offerings, so don't count my glorification of traditional animation as a condemnation of more modern technique. I'm impressed by both genres. On some levels, I'm most impressed by films like April and the Extraordinary World.