As even the quickest look at a box office report shows, 2016 has been a great year for the popularity of animated films. But outside of the heavyweight American studio tentpoles, there have been genuine treasures that have still managed to slip through the cracks. Thus it's my pleasure to introduce to you the crackling Franco-Canadian-Belgian sci-fi fantasy April and the Extraordinary World, new to DVD this week, thanks to the endlessly wonderful folks at distributor GKIDS.
The film takes place in an alternate world where Emperor Napoleon III of France died in a lab explosion in 1870, just before our history had him falling from grace in the eyes of the French legislature; here, his son ascends as Napoleon IV and ushers in a bold new era of European diplomacy that manages to prevent both of the 20th Century's World Wars, but also results in an era of scientific stultification, meaning that by 1931, when the film proper begins, the world is still in an age of steam.
Here we meet young April, whose parents are working on a serum to prolong life...
After they are killed, the latest in a long line of great thinkers to be removed from the world under mysterious circumstances, April takes up their research, and in 1941, finally cracks the secret of their serum, aided by a sarcastic talking cat (an inheritance from her parents' experiments). Thus putting her under the watchful eyes of the French authorities, but also some other even more terrifying power.
Steampunk is a well-established subgenre of science fiction in books and comics (it means, basically, "what would modern inventions look like if they were made with Victorian technology?"), but it only rarely gets its due in the movies, which is not least of the reasons why April and the Extraordinary World is so delightful. The design, based upon a graphic novel French comic book artist Tardi, is richly fanciful, presenting an evocative world full of grey soot and elaborate metalwork, looking something like post-apocalyptic Art Nouveau. One can easily take the comparison too far, but the film more than slightly resembles the work of Hayao Miyazaki, particularly in his Castle in the Sky/Howl's Moving Castle phase: the world-building involves the same mixture of fantasy and costume drama; the story blurs science-fiction and historical romance in much the same way. It even throughout in a bit of Expressionism and film noir in some of the more dramatic moments.
All of which is to say that April and the Extraordinary World lives up to its title: the idiosyncratic, detailed, and imaginative setting is all by itself enough to make this possibly the year's most special-looking animated feature. Which is all well and good, but it's at least as gratifying that it also presents such an enjoyable adventure narrative, anchored by a fantastic protagonist in the form of April herself. Part of this is how unique she is: not all that many movies make a sense of scientific curiosity and creativity the main characteristic of their lead character, and even fewer of them do that when the lead is also a woman. But she's also graced with a really excellent vocal performance in the original French, by Marion Cotillard (replaced by Canadian singer Angela Galuppo in the English dub), who gives the character a hard, sharp attitude, and generally makes her more complicated and interesting than one expects from an animated protagonist.
Besides that, the film simply has a really great story and it tells it really well. Animators turned first-time directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci keep the film moving at a quick clip, all the better to keep us at full attention, and also to deprive us of a chance to think too hard about what's going on. The plot takes some particularly strange turns in its second half, pushing It from low-key adventure (or anyway, as low-key as anything so beholden to steampunk could possibly manage to be) into full-blown pulp sci-fi, and it's one of the film's great strengths to plow throw those twists so fast that by the time we can stop to wonder if they make any sense, we've already gotten used to them.
More than anything else, though, the pacing gives April and the Extraordinary World the feeling of a great swashbuckler. It is, first and foremost, an exceptionally fun movie, starting with its playful credits and moving all the way through the untrustworthy handsome boys, flying houses, and camera-wielding rats that April encounters on the way. It's all a gratifyingly straightforward adventure, given particular energy by the old-fashioned animation choices used to bring it to life, and it's every bit the equal to all of the bigger family movies that have made so much more noise this year.