It’s 19th century France, and – in the world of this story – Napoleon Bonaparte remained in power long enough to pass control of the country to his heirs after his death. In an attempt to engineer a serum for creating the world’s first indestructible foot soldier, France’s leading scientist on the project has a mishap, resulting in the escape of the creatures the solution created and the destruction of the laboratory. We aren’t quite sure what these creatures are, but we know they are young, lizard-like and we know they can speak. They are just not super soldiers. At least, not human ones.
Cut a few years to the turn of the century and most of the world’s top scientists and scholars are in short supply. The world no longer has minds capable of driving technology forward, and instead humanity still relies on coal and steam power as that was the last dominant technology to take hold. A very young Avril watches as her parents and grandfather work tirelessly to create a liquid solution capable of restoring life to dead organisms.
Detective Pizoni is hot on the heels of the family and commandeers a raid on their hideout before they get the opportunity to test out their invention. In their escape attempt (elaborate, and a quite fun piece of animated action that reminded me of some of the best sequences of Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tin-Tin) Avril’s grandfather eludes capture altogether while her parents aren’t quite as lucky. Avril and the family cat Darwin are now on their own.
It’s now years later (what would have been the World War II era) and Paris is covered in a cloud of smog as the world’s leading minds continue to go missing and we are still stuck in the age of steam-power. Avril (now voiced by the sweet sounds of Marion Cotillard), along with her talking and endearingly French cat Darwin, continue to evade the authorities in their quest to finish what the family started years before.
The story, by writer Jacques Tardi, offers up a very well-conceived environment of consequences of its own making. What would the world be like with Napoleon still in power? What would he want to do with the promise of science? What would happen if he took away all of the scientists? What would happen if each of his offspring was no different than he? The answer is we’d be drenched in soot within five decades, and while we can’t make super soldiers, we can make animals talk. However, electricity – never realized, fossil fuels – never realized, radio communications – none doing, and telephones – powered by steam along with everything else.
This might be the picture’s biggest problem. The world (displayed in highly appealing art style that feels both classic and contemporary) is more interesting than its inhabitants. They’re not dull, but aside from the amenability of Darwin the talking cat everyone else is rather ordinary. They’re never unpleasant, but they’re never really more than just cute and agreeable. Luckily, playful banter and engaging personas take a backseat to the plot and setting, and it is the story’s high concept that keeps your attention anyway. It’s full of fun surprises in its acknowledgment of both a world deprived of progressive science, but with an underbelly of vast scientific advancements – like walking houses, and everlasting life – and all with tongue-in-cheek. It may not give you many characters to commit to memory, but it will provide ample imagination and lighthearted adventure – and an appreciation for science, greenery, and maybe even cats.
The Upside: Visually appealing animation-style; conceptually unlike family films you’re likely to be given here in the U.S.; adults can appreciate the concept and imagination while children can appreciate the adventure
The Downside: Aside from Darwin no characters really stand out as memorable, and because of that it may be less likely one has a desire to revisit as often as many other animated classics (however, it would be interesting to see the reaction of someone seeing this both as a child and adult with a little bit of history education).
Editor’s note: Our review of April and the Extraordinary World originally ran during Fantastic Fest 2015, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in limited release.
Related Topics: Fantastic Fest