by Matt Levine
In a political climate where scientific facts are often dismissed in favor of bipartisan vitriol, fantasy movies about noble scientists preventing the end of the world have suddenly become chic. Last year’s Tomorrowland envisioned an alternate universe where scientists are jettisoned to start fresh, escaping the greed and political turmoil that have almost guaranteed the earth’s destruction. This year, it’s the French animated fantasy April and the Extraordinary World that depicts a dystopian planet stuck in the Dark Ages after the twentieth century’s greatest scientists go missing. Surprisingly morbid yet consistently exciting, April and the Extraordinary World offers a somewhat tepid indictment of man’s petty quests for power, but the real thrills are provided by gorgeous animation and a unique steampunk setting that resembles Mad Max transplanted to fin de siècle France.
Directors: Christian Desmares, Franck Ekinci
Producers: Michel Dutheil, Franck Ekinci, Marc Jousset
Writers: Franck Ekinci, Benjamin Legrand, Jacques Tardi (graphic novel)
Editor: Nazim Meslem
Music: Valentin Hadjadj
French-Language Voice Cast: Marion Cotillard, Philippe Katerine, Jean Rochefort, Olivier Gourmet, Marc-André Grondin, Bouli Lanners, Anne Coesens, Macha Grenon
English-Language Voice Cast: Marion Cotillard, Paul Giamatti, Tony Hale, Susan Sarandon, J.K. Simmons
Premiere: June 15, 2015 – Annecy Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: March 25, 2016
US Distributor: Gkids
The hero here, however, is not a stoic warrior wandering the outback but a young woman who’s lost her whole family to an empire obsessed with war. In the alternate timeline the film proposes, Napoleon III scours late-nineteenth century France for the greatest scientific minds to invent an invincibility serum; the only use for science that these war-obsessed politicians can think of is to concoct supersoldiers. As these brilliant innovators are kidnapped one by one, however, France (and apparently the whole world) devolves into a sooty, colorless nightmare world devoid of electricity, advanced medicine, and modern technology.
Young April is the youngest in a line of scientists; her grandfather “Pops,” along with her mother Annette and father Paul, are all struggling to perfect the same invincibility serum, though they have more benevolent designs for it than the militarized government that pursues them. When their secret lab is discovered by a bungling cop named Pizoni, a wild chase through Paris ends on an airship that resembles the Hindenburg, where an adolescent April watches her parents get zapped (and apparently killed) by a hovering black cloud. Her grandfather escapes into the clanking metropolis, leaving April to fend for herself (along with a talking cat named Darwin—anthropomorphic powers are apparently one of the side effects of the serum this family’s invented).
Confused yet? All of this takes place in a breathless prologue that’s doubtlessly exciting, though it maybe moves a little too quickly for its own good. Things settle down by the time we reach 1941, however, and are introduced to April in her late teens. (Also, it should be said that the film does an excellent job tying up all the loose ends left by this introduction.) World War II hasn’t devastated Europe in this alternate universe, but that’s not to say things are rosy; brilliant thinkers like Einstein and Fermi have been kidnapped, either by the power-hungry government or by that same black stormcloud, whose purposes are less clear. Living with Darwin in a massive statue of Napoleon, April wanders a city in which pedestrians casually wear gasmasks, a single tree is enshrined in an ultra-secure museum, and rats are equipped with cameras and mics to spy on citizens.
It would be a shame to give away any more of the plot; I knew very little about April and the Extraordinary World going in, and the kinetic, imaginative storyline is surely one of its greatest aspects. Suffice it to say that a house sprouting mechanical legs and traipsing through the city is one of the movie’s least astounding developments. Based on a series of graphic novels by Jacques Tardi (a revered French illustrator who’s unfortunately undervalued in the US), April and the Extraordinary World is foremost a work of rollicking imagination, creating a completely vivid sci-fi universe in which fantastic events are seemingly par for the course.
Aside from the sheer energy of the storytelling, the film’s visual design is its most striking asset. Co-directed by Christian Desmares (one of the animators of Persepolis) and Franck Ekinci (who worked on one of this film’s spiritual ancestors, the French television series The Adventures of Tintin), April and the Extraordinary World boasts an animation style that’s seen too rarely: crisp, clear-cut lines and borders, a ravishing interplay of foreground action and background landscapes, and brilliant use of color, with many early parts of the film nearly monochromatic. Making wonderfully minimal use of CGI, April and the Extraordinary World often seems like a graphic novel come alive, with meticulous hand-drawn detail (for example, the almost tactile rust on a dilapidated Ferris Wheel) turning each image into a wonder to behold.
The film’s eye-popping visuals and thrilling story belie a dark thematic undertone: this world, in which everything is powered by coal and trees are nowhere in sight, is a fairly overt allegory for a modern world in which an overdependence on dirty energy has endangered our planet. In April and the Extraordinary World, both the pseudo-Napoleonic government and the shadier sect conducting its own experiments are implicit critiques of real-world nations who ally themselves with wasteful, destructive corporations for the sake of profit and power. There’s an ambitious happy ending to the film, but it seems bittersweet in the context of our own real world, which is so far distanced from the fantastic optimism with which the movie concludes. Again like Tomorrowland, April and the Extraordinary World strongly denounces our own modernity, so often ruled by greed and waste, yet finishes with a happy ending both commendable and unnervingly farfetched. The film’s visceral excitement sometimes clashes with its solemn message, but if anything that disjunctive quality simply makes it more interesting.
April and the Extraordinary World has its awkward moments—some characters’ relationships don’t ring true, and some of the dialogue devolves into clichéd one-liners near the end—but for most of its running time this is a thrilling, visually incredible, thought-provoking adventure. It’s a bipolar experience in some ways—half bleak social commentary, half heart-racing escapism—but it’s a testament to the filmmakers’ skill and imagination that these parts usually manage to coalesce. The original French title has been translated somewhat inaccurately (in French it’s closer to April and the Twisted World), but that mistranslation actually seems appropriate: in the ways that the film both departs from and resembles our reality, it offers us an extraordinary world indeed.