J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, February 26, 2016

NYICFF ’16: April and the Extraordinary World

How would the world look if the Industrial Revolution never happened and petroleum energy was never developed? Far, far more environmentally ravaged than it is today. In this steampunky alternate universe, that steam power comes from trees and there are not a lot of them left. How did things get so bad? A mysterious agency has been abducting scientists, halting progress in its tracks. April and her family are some of the few researchers who have not disappeared or been pressed into the service of the House of Bonaparte emperor, but not for long. April will have to go underground to carry on the family research in Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci’s April and the Extraordinary World (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

It all started with April (or Avril)’s great grandfather, Gustave Franklin, but he will not last past the big bang at the beginning of the picture. Her grandfather Prosper (a.k.a. Pops) and parents will continue his research into an ultimate cure-all life-extension serum, but they must do so off the steam-powered grid. Unfortunately, Inspector Pizoni’s raid goes bad, leaving April a presumed orphan with only the family’s talking cat Darwin for company. He was an early test subject, but instead of immortality, he developed the power of speech, because that is how chemistry works.

Busted down in rank, Pizoni swears vengeance against the Franklin family, but he is probably the least of their worries given the wider mysteries in play. However, he manages to recruit a likable parolee to worm his way into Franklin’s confidence. Of course, the smooth talking Julius is in for considerably more than he bargained for, but the issue of trust will loom large if these kids are ever going to develop a serious relationship.

Even in today’s world of banal CGI wonders, it would be a tall order the render the scope and detail of the Franklins’ ominous steampunk world in a live-action tent-pole. Based on Jacques Tardi’s graphic novel, Ekinci and co-adaptor Benjamin Legrand fully establish the complexities of the alternate history. With the [un]timely death of Napoleon III, the disastrous Franco-Prussian War is averted and the not so enlightened Bonapartes remain on the Imperial throne. (On the plus side, the Paris Commune never happens either, sparing the French its lingering ideological toxicity.)

It is pretty cool to see a film suitable for family viewing reference the Franco-Prussian War and provide cameos for scores of scientists, including Einstein and Fermi. Francophiles will also be impressed by the big name French voice cast, including Marion Cotillard as Ap[v]ril, Jean Rochefort as “Pops” Prosper (he’s terrific), Bouli Lanners as Pizoni, and Oliver Gourmet as her father, Paul.

Stylistically, Desmares & Ekinci’s animation evokes the clean lines of Tardi’s comic art, but that allows them to render the steam engines and Belle Époque fashions and monuments with crisp precision. Even in an animated film, the narrative stretches believability, but the sophisticated world-building more than compensates. Highly recommended for steampunk fans of all ages, April and the Extraordinary World screens this Sunday (2/28) and next Saturday (3/5) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYICFF, with a regular theatrical release coming from GKIDS on March 25th.

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