Although America did not invent animation, it certainly has dominated it for over a century. Japan has tried, and very nearly succeeded to take the crown, but the one-two punch of Disney/Pixar is too much to contest, and many times animated features from rival studios and across the globe look and feel like faint echoes of those successful formulas. That doesn’t mean great work isn’t being done elsewhere. Not by a long shot. It just has to work a little harder to make an impact on Yankee screens, and when it does, it is something special to behold.
Set in an alternate universe, specifically Paris in 1941, where electricity was never discovered — coal and steam provided the energy to run a city — and the Napoleonic dynasty continued a rather fruitful lineage, April and the Extraordinary World (Avril et le monde truqué) is a steampunk trip through French sci-fi animation, one that relies heavily on a coming-of-age trope while cribbing from the handbooks of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
The Paris of April is a dystopia, one where science is tightly regimented and allowed only in the name of the great emperor. Their game is producing invincible soldiers by imbuing animals with hyper-intelligence. But one couple is practicing science in secret and close to inventing a serum that would extend life well beyond its normal limits. What they are doing is against the law, and they are abducted for their crimes, leaving their only child, April, with her intelligent and her vociferous cat, Darwin (Philippe Katerine) behind.
Flash forward ten years and April (now voiced by Marion Cotillard) has figured out a way to finish her mother’s work and creates the invincibility serum. She has not given up on the idea of finding her parents, who she believes to be alive and well. Darwin is along for the ride, as is Julius (Marc-André Grondin), a bumbling teenage janitor with secret loyalties. But Julius, as anyone who has read a book or seen a movie knows, will happily abandon those loyalties for the pretty heroine.
Their adventure throws them into contact with the greatest scientists of history, highly intelligent and mechanized lizards, cyborg rat spies, two Eiffel Towers that hold a secret and an endless stream of visual twists and turns. Directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci adapt Jacques Tardi’s graphic novel with flair and wonder, packing each frame densely with gadgets, doodads and lots and lots of steam.
But none of these window dressings get in the way of April as a coming-of-age adventure, one where April must overcome, and step outside of, her parent’s shadow. She has to establish her own identity while also reconciling her previous disgust with the male sex with her sudden attraction to it. And do the one thing her mother couldn’t: invent a serum that allows for eternal life — a fertility drug, if you will.
April and the Extraordinary World is a fantastic ride through imagination, one that will delight younger audiences while allowing the adults in the theater to tuck their tongues firmly in their cheeks. The best-animated works usual aim for this range, but in April, it is pulled off in a way that feels fresh and new.