Mark Reviews Movies

April and the Extraordinary World


3 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci

Cast: The voices of Marion Cotillard, Philippe Katerine, Jean Rochefort, Marc-André Grondin, Olivier Gourmet, Bouli Lanners, Macha Grenon, Anne Coesens, Benoît Brière 

MPAA Rating: PG (for action/peril including gunplay, some thematic elements and rude humor)

Running Time: 1:45

Release Date: 4/8/16 (limited); 5/6/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 6, 2016

At the inception of the Second Industrial Revolution in April and the Extraordinary World, the greatest scientists of Europe began to disappear mysteriously. The history of the world was irrevocably altered from the one we now know. Technology that is beginning to be forgotten or that we take for granted was never developed. Electricity was never harnessed, so the world relied on coal. The mines of Europe were quickly exhausted. The forests were cleared to help make charcoal, and now the great cities of the continent are enveloped in a constant cloud of smoke. People walk around wearing gas masks.

Certain wars were avoided. As is the sad history of humanity, new ones took their place.

Certain revolutions never occurred. The lineage of Napoleon III continued to maintain reign within a still-imperial France, and the scarcity of resources led to a surge of nationalism.

France and the United States are at war—one that seems unending—over the vast, untapped natural resources of North America. In one of the more amusing touches, the film offers a glimpse of what has become of famous landmarks. The pyramids of Egypt are now a center of irrigation, and since France had no desire to offer a gift to the country, the United States never received the great statue of Lady Liberty. In its place, there's the towering figure of a cowboy with his six-shooter raised to the sky—a tribute to the westward expansion that has kept the boilers of industry burning.

The peculiar and particular details of this animated film's world help to keep it grounded, and that's a necessity here. There are moments watching this in which one will likely pause to recognize just how strange the affair has become.

The film seems constantly ready to collapse under the weight of its absurdity, especially once the mystery behind the disappearing scientists is revealed, but it never does. It's nearly impossible not to become caught up in the continual stream of imaginative sights on display here. In constructing this strange concoction of alternate history founded upon a single mishap and science-fiction that borders on fantasy and retrograde technology that seems improbable even by today's technological standards, the screenplay by co-director Franck Ekinci and Benjamin Legrand (based on the graphic novel by Jacques Tardi) forms a cohesive whole—a "twisted" world (as the original French title dubs it) in which the problems of the alternative past and the call to scientific progress feel relevant.

Our heroine is Avril (voice of Marion Cotillard), the fourth generation of scientists in her family. Her great-grandfather is the one who accidentally caused history to alter, when his search for an "Ultimate Serum," which would turn monkeys into invincible soldiers for Napoleon III for the forthcoming hostilities with the Kingdom of Prussia, went awry. A resulting explosion killed the emperor, and France's monarchy continued.

Avril's grandfather Pops (voice of Jean Rochefort), as well as her parents Paul (voice of Olivier Gourmet) and Annette (voice of Macha Grenon), continued to work on the serum, although the best result they could achieve was to create a talking cat named Darwin (voice of Philippe Katerine), who becomes Avril's wise, old, and trusty sidekick. The family was separated in 1931 during a chase, led by the determined Inspector (later Officer) Pizoni (voice of Bouli Lanners), that ended on a massive cable car between Paris (where two Eiffel Towers form the tram station) and Berlin. Avril's grandfather escaped, and her parents were apparently killed when the lightning emitting from a mysterious black cloud struck the cable car.

Ten years later, Avril is still working on the serum in her secret laboratory in the hollow head of a metal statue of Napoleon. Pizoni is still hunting for Pops, and he has enlisted Julius (voice of Marc-André Grondin) to follow Avril, hoping that she will lead the disgraced police officer to the fugitive scientist.

As intricate and thorough as the story's historical backdrop may be, it is primarily an excuse to show off the film's ever-impressive designs (The animation's hard lines complement the source material, and the blend of traditional and computer animation is seamless). As enigmatic and silly as the plot may be, it's mainly a justification to take us to new locales (a Normandy submerged in water, a secret base under an old fortress, and, during the climax, a lush, primordial jungle that has somehow escaped the ravages of the rest of this backwards, industrial world), give us oddities (rats and pigeons that act as spies with green-tinted goggles, as well as famous scientists playing in a string quartet or providing massages to their captors), and introduce us to new modes of transportation (boiler-powered cars, the imposing cable car, a helicopter-airplane hybrid, and, most fanciful of all, a mansion that walks on spindly metal legs and glides underwater with a weather vane for a periscope).

The plot does matter thematically to an extent, especially in the way the movie's villains (voices of Anne Coesens and Benoît Brière), who walk around in robotic suits (Let's allow the forms within those suits to remain a mystery to be discovered from the film itself), arose from science and now debate over its purpose. They both have seen the destruction that human beings can cause in wielding such a gift. One wants to correct it through peaceful, life-affirming means, and the other is cynical about humanity's potential for salvation. They both have a point.

The film itself remains optimistic. In fact, it's surprising how affecting the denouement of April and the Extraordinary World, which for so long feels like an exercise in whimsical world-building, actually is. The clock speeds forward, as alternate history catches up to and, in some ways, surpasses reality. It's another imaginative leap but, nonetheless, a nice thought.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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