The actual title of this French Steampunk animated film is April and the Twisted World, but this (along with “free” translations of things like “merde” to “darn!”) is probably a concession to getting in a younger audience in America and England. (Although if I put it into Google Translate, Avril et le monde truqué comes out April and the Fake World, truqé having both the noun and verb meaning of fake, from what I can tell.) Who knows? They got their PG rating, though, and a big enough release to gross around $150K, which will probably put them in the top half of releases this year.
Directed by Christan Desmares (art director on Persepolis) and Frank Eknici (who wrote an episode of the French “Dragon Hunters” series, which The Boy was fond of back when he actually was a boy), based on the graphic novel by Jacques Tardi, and written by Eknici and Benjamin LeGrand (who wrote some of the graphic novels that Snowpiercer was based on!), April is about an alternate reality where a French scientist in search of The Ultimate Serum ends up being killed by a belligerent and reckless Napoleon III, who is succeeded by a more peace-minded Napoleon the IV, and whose successor (Napoleon V, duh) ends up ruling France in the early 20th century.
At the same time (conicidentally?! Outrageant!) all the scientists of the world start mysteriously vanishing, and Earth is stuck in a steam-based society, with the U.S.A. and France fighting over Canada. ’cause of all the forests, see?
But, look, you sort of have to assume everything else is going to go on exactly the same, and Americans aren’t going to, e.g., plant gazillions of trees for fuel in their vast plains (much like was done for the trees used in papermills), or you won’t get your dystopia. And this is a pretty dystopic world, with a smoky miasma floating around amongst and between the cool steam-powered versions of modern things that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) possibly be steam powered.
Anyway, decades later, the son of the scientist killed by Napoleon III, Pops (played by Jean Rochefort of Tell No One) is working on his father’s formula, along with his children Paul (Olivier Gourmet, 2 Days, 1 Night, The Kid With A Bike) and Annette (Macha Grenon, The Barbarian Invasions) while his granddaughter April (Marion Cotillard, natch) hangs out with one of their failed experiments, a talking cat named Darwin (Philippe Katerine). In this future-past world, doing science without government permission (and not for the government) is a crime, and the family is split up when a Javert-ish police inspector named Pizoni (Bouli Lanners, Rust and Bone) tries to capture them before the mysterious scientist-kidnappers do, and put them to work making weapons of some sort.
In the fracas, Paul and Annette are captured by the mysterious scientist-kidnappers, while Pops and April escape the police, but are split up. Our story begins in earnest when, ten years later, a grown April is trying to complete her parents’ work while shoplifting and hiding her way through life, an embittered Pizoni on her trail.
From the start, it must be understood that this is an excuse to make some cool steampunk artwork. The silliness of the premise is mitigated by a certain self-awareness: This is a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, start to finish. The initial chase scene is both very live-action Hollywood and very cartoonish as well. It’s very apparent that a lot of love went into it, and it wins the viewer over pretty easily and quickly. In fact, in some ways, the most entertaining part of the film is what could be described as an escalation of steampunkiness. The contraptions get increasingly preposterous, which is really kind of fun.
The Boy actually saw this with his girlfriend, and he raved about it. “Can’t miss”, said he. I could not, however, coax The Flower into going. She didn’t care for the art style, and as mentioned previously, she prefers dubbed versions of foreign animation because otherwise she can’t focus on the visuals. So I went solo…and, well, I wasn’t as crazy about it as he was.
For me, the problems really start with the third act. The Big Reveal is possibly the least surprising thing ever. I mean, it sort of has to be: Anything surprising would also be unfounded. But it’s so telegraphed as to be sort of perfunctory, and the entire third act plays out as predictably as it possibly can, with a few fun notes (especially in the stinger). There’s an incongruity in the nature of the Big Bad(s) that combines massive competence with massive incompetence that just doesn’t make sense.
Also, artists don’t understand the difference between science and engineering, and seem to not understand that it’s far easier to draw a bridge than it is to build a bridge.
I did enjoy it, overall. A lot of credit is to be given for attention to detail. And a lot of credit to the writers and Philippe Katerine for making a sassy talking animal you don’t want to strangle. (I don’t know, maybe it’s a French thing.) But 97/90% scores on Rotten Tomatoes (and The Boy) notwithstanding, I found it “merely” good—not great.