The last of scientific hope lives in a young genius in the delightful steampunk adventure, April and the Extraordinary World
April and the Extraordinary World Gkids
Director: Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci
Screenplay: Franck Ekinci and Benjamin Legrand, based on the graphic novel by Jacques Tardi
Starring: The voices of Marion Cotillard, Philippe Katerine, Marc-André Grondin, Macha Grenon, Jean Rochefort, Olivier Gourmet, Bouli Lanners and Anne Coesens
Rated PG / 1 hour, 45 minutes
(out of four)
The eyes, as April and the Extraordinary World would have it, are the window to the spirit of progress and innovation ... at least, what remnants there are in this stunted alternate past. Indeed, the eyes are simultaneously a reflection of a world caught in stasis, a mocking reminder of a future that never arrived - or, in any event, is many decades late.
Hiding, if you'll forgive the pun, in plain sight is April (voiced by Marion Cotillard), a de-facto orphan of inventor parents (who went missing years ago) and a burgeoning inventor herself, who lives literally inside the eyes of a towering statue of Emperor Napoleon III. It's his historically premature death in the film's early scenes that staves off the Franco-Prussian War and preserves the Second French Empire.
Decades later, technology is at a virtual standstill, a perpetual reliance on burning coal having left Europe's greatest cities - Paris being the primary focus - drenched in clouds of soot. This world never got to know the great scientists of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries; they all mysteriously disappeared - abducted by sentient lizard people, as it turns out - before ever making their mark on the world that was, or could have been. Two of those scientists were April's parents (voiced by Macha Grenon and Olivier Gourmet), who were developing a longevity serum that more sinister parties, naturally, would like to use for military reasons. Just before their abduction (a thrilling chase sequence culminating in a cable-car escape and a mysterious explosion of black smoke), they manage to hide a vial of the serum with young April, unbeknownst to her. Still, a decade or so later, she's continuing on with their work - in isolation and loneliness, her only companion a talking cat named Darwin (a byproduct of one of the serum's early versions), her motivation nothing less than the weight of her entire family's legacy. Day and night she spends behind those eyes, overlooking a dilapidated Parisian nightmare.
The eye motif recurs throughout the film, a consistent adornment to this retro-fantastical milieu's machinery and metal. The secret, electric-powered airplane that April and her cohorts discover, its shafts of yellow light bursting from its headlights like laser vision, pointing the way to safety. Or the mechanized surveillance animals - rodents sneaking behind walls, pigeons resting on cable lines - with their glowing, orb-like sockets feeding information to hidden overlords that observe from somewhere out of sight.
With the handmade qualities that naturally come with the steampunk genre, it only makes sense that even this reality's creations and contraptions would be imbued with the human characteristics of their creators; they're practically as anthropomorphized as the cat and the lizard people. But more to the point, this all reads as an ironic rejoinder to a discouraged civilization that's long given up on looking forward to the future, or trying to build it, or seeing much hope in it.
April is the rare exception, and makes for a remarkable protagonist even when the movie is hampered by her flirty entanglement with Julius (Marc-André Grondin), the petty thief hired to keep an eye on her. April gets her own pseudo-symbolic complement in the recurring appearance of massive oak tree, which rests at the center of a Parisian greenhouse that feels more like a mausoleum. It is the last of its kind - the very last tree in Paris - just as April is seemingly the last of hers. It also happens to be an important meeting spot, used by her family for decades, and the place where she reunites with "Pops" (Jean Rochefort), her grandfather.
Despite the film's technological sphere being squarely situated in the age of steam, it still explicitly addresses the very modern concern of surveillance - personified most clearly with the aforementioned animals, but in more generalized terms in the way every character is perpetually either hiding from, or spying on, someone. This is a world in which no innovative deed goes unnoticed, or unpunished. And if it's not the evil lizard folks on April's trail, it's the bumbling, vindictive cop Pizoni (Bouli Lanners), who has it out for April after missing out on the chance to arrest her parents a decade earlier.
As brought to life by directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci - and inspired by the work of graphic novelist Jacques Tardi (who was instrumental in designing the film's world and aesthetics) - April and the Extraordinary World is as enjoyably adventurous as it is melancholy. But as for that name? The inclusion of "extraordinary" makes for a rather curious release title, a misdirect that suggests a whimsical fantasy - like a sci-fi Amelie or something. What's interesting is that the caption on the film's title card actually translates it as "April and the Twisted World," which is much more fitting of the film's style and attitude. Whatever its official title, the movie balances its cautionary motives (not only concerning scientific innovation and sociopolitical evolution, but the way we treat the Earth as a whole) with an endearing sense of optimism, exemplified by the title character herself. In looking to a warped past, April finds a gleam of hope for the future of humanity.