France Goes Steampunk In The Wondrously Weird ‘April And The Extraordinary World’

In overseas markets, the wondrously odd new animated feature April and the Extraordinary World has been released under the title April and the Twisted World. The slight tweak for American audiences makes sense; the film takes place in a frequently bizarre alternate timeline complete with robotic lizard-people and inscrutable gas mask-clad civilians, but the world itself never smacks of the warped connotation attached to the word “twisted.” The new status quo laid out through judiciously placed exposition has settled into normalcy for the characters inhabiting the steampunk France in which the film takes place. They’ve gotten used to their unusual world, and if genetically modified talking cats may seem out of the ordinary to us, to young April, it’s only Tuesday.

Christian Desmares (who had a hand in Persepolis) and Franck Ekinci (a former Tintin animator, the detailed yet relatively unadorned line drawings of which had a clear influence on the look of April) take a surprisingly nonchalant approach in adapting the spec-fic premise of Jacques Tardi’s graphic novel, wherein the world’s prominent scientists began mysteriously vanishing just before the technological booms of the 20th century were scheduled to get chugging along. Their absence slows European progress to the point that French armies wield archaic-looking contraptions powered by charcoal in a desperate effort to seize the precious lumber reserves in North America. There are smaller flourishes fleshing out the interiority of this fantasy — a Ferris wheel with mini hot air balloons for each individual car, animatronic rats outfitted with telescopic eyes — but the directors have much more important business to attend to than marveling at this imperfect dystopia.

They’d rather use April and the Extraordinary World as a jumping-off point for a taut thriller with plenty of social urgency, an adventure that moves along at a brisk clip with good wit and humor. April (voiced in the original French with innocence and strength by Marion Cotillard, and replaced by voiceover stalwart Angela Galuppo for the English dub) grew up parentless after her brilliant père and mama were snatched up in the Great Scientist Kidnapping of the 1870s, left only with her intelligent talking cat for company. She carries on their legacy by continuing their work on a super-soldier serum — somewhere, Marvel’s legal team just felt a rush of blood to the head — in secret, but both the French government and the shadowy agency plucking keen inventive minds like so many daffodils have an unsettling interest in her work. Later, the aforementioned lizard-robots get in the mix. In all honesty, the film could flay all non-lizard-robot sequences from the run time, and the twenty-or-so remaining minutes would be more than worth the price of admission.

There’s a potent environmentalist parable about fossil fuel dependency buried not-too-deep in the picture, with our planet-killing reliance on oil an easy substitute for the film’s coal-driven alternate history. But there’s nary an ounce of didacticism or preachiness present in Ekinci and cowriter Benjamin LeGrand’s script; they’re too busy with a rollicking and jauntily French caper that submits human ingenuity as the only possible way out of the fossil-fuel hole we’ve dug for ourselves. April’s an instantly winning hero, her flair for chemistry not only an endearing character trait, but a positive example for young women considering infiltrating the boys’ club of STEM professions. Chemical know-how practically qualifies as a superpower for young April, a potentially infinite means through which she can cheat death and maybe even save the world entire. Her indefatigable spirit and verve for life keeps the film nicely buoyant and lots of fun, even when the visual palette becomes mired in the drabness of half-industrialized Paris. (Which, in its own decaying way, is still plenty beautiful.)

A host of familiar character actors from film and TV alike lend their tones to the English dub — J.K. Simmons, Susan Sarandon, Paul Giamatti, and Tony Hale all picked up a nice, easy check — but there’s something to be said for watching the subtitled original, if only for the way it conveys the hard-to-place Frenchness of it all. The steampunk aesthetic at play here harkens back to the clockwork doohickeys of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and the graphic novel form has yielded the most masterpieces from French writers (after the Japanese and Americans, probably, though that’s a conversation best left elsewhere), but more vital than that is the film’s embodiment of a distinctly French playfulness. All things considered, April’s world has gone to hell; parents out of the picture, shady agencies tracking her everywhere she goes, the microwave-ready crepe hasn’t been invented. What a wonder, then, that this film can still provide its viewers with such a weightlessly enjoyable experience. And if the promise of a soufflé-light European adventure somehow isn’t selling you, I’ll relinquish the spoiler that the robotic lizard people have lasers. I repeat: the robotic lizard-people have lasers.

April and the Extraordinary World opens in New York and L.A. tomorrow before expanding throughout April.