REVIEW – April and the Extraordinary World [Avril et le Monde truqué]
Produced by: Michel Dutheil, Franck Elkinci, Marc Jousset
Screenplay by: Franck Ekinci, Benjamin Legrand
Edited by: Nazim Meslem
Music by: Valentin Hadjadj
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Philippe Katerine, Jean Rochefort, Olivier Gourmet, Marc-André Grondin, Bouli Lanners, Anne Coesens, Benoît Brière, Macha Grenon | English: Angela Galuppo, Tony Hale, Tony Robinow, Mark Camacho, Tod Fennell, Paul Giamatti, Susan Sarandon, J.K. Simmons
Inspired by the work of Jacques Tardi
Year: 2015 (France/Belgium), 2016 (U.S.)
Just when it seemed like steampunk had died, along comes April and the Extraordinary World to potentially reignite interest in the once unavoidable not-quite-underground subgenre. A French/Belgian/Canadian coproduction featuring a world guided and inspired by renowned French comic artist Jacques Tardi, Avril et le Monde truqué (as it is known in its native language) is a film that’s a throwback to a great number of things: the sci-fi of Jules Verne, the grand adventure of Tintin (as well as sporting a similar ligne claire art style), that period of time in the 2000s and early 2010s when steampunk was seemingly the new black, and also the bygone days when science was universally understood in terms of all the positive changes it could provide the world, rather than obsessing about how it could potentially destroy us all, regardless of benign or malicious intent. That last point, in particular – the responsibility of science as a force for good in this world and for humanity – is primary focus.
Set in an alternate timeline, beginning in the 1870s, Napoleon III has secretly commissioned research to create a serum that will enable him to command an army of invincible soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War. Disgusted with the results – the creation of intelligent, talking animals – the incensed emperor inadvertently causes a great explosion, killing himself prematurely and setting forth a series of events that alter history even more significantly. Over the next several decades, war continues to rage on, and the world’s scientists are either mandated to serve the various governments’ interests (weapons to gain new resources and territory) or are mysteriously vanishing altogether from the face of the planet. As a result, advancement in technology stagnates significantly, and even though new inventions do come about, nobody seems to understand how to solve the energy crisis, caused by operating so much machinery on charcoal and steam. The world basically enters a soot-covered dark age.
Not everyone has agreed to become complicit in this destruction, however. One such family, the Franklins – consisting of the young April, her parents, and her grandfather, Pops – continue research on the invincibility serum, believing it to be the answer to saving humanity and ending the war. But their clandestine work also makes them fugitives, as they refuse to hand it over to the French government nor to the persistent officer who has been assigned to their case, Pizoni. A surprise raid on their lab and a subsequent freak storm of soot and lightning, however, leaves the young April an orphan. Alone, apart from her talking cat Darwin, she spends the next ten years working to finish her family’s work. But just when it seems like all hope is lost, a new conspiracy comes to light that may hold the key to changing the course of history for the better – both for the world as well as for April.
And that’s just the set up! April and the Extraordinary World has a lot of fantastic detail within its narrative – world building enthusiasts will find plenty to like here, particularly fans of alternate history – and it tells the story with compelling energy and plenty of style. It’s especially nice to see a new hand-drawn animated film that doesn’t hail from Japan (not that there’s anything wrong with anime – just that it sometimes seems to be the last well-known bastion for feature film hand-drawn animation). As previously noted, the film is heavily inspired by the clean, simple ligne claire (clear line) style employed by The Adventures of Tintin creator Hergé, and it’s incredibly refreshing to see something so much different come out from a major production that isn’t relying upon realistically textured CGI models. The animation is truly beautiful, and the world they’ve created with it is fascinating, imaginative, and, despite the gloom and darkness, is still somehow gorgeous to look at.
April herself is an interesting heroine. As an orphaned adult, she carries with her a cold aloofness throughout much of the film, both necessary to keep from being noticed when she steals things, having no job to provide income, but also to shield herself emotionally. The most affection she shows these days is towards her loyal cat Darwin, whom she addresses with affection masked as bickering. Julius, a would-be suitor and hapless companion on this adventure, is someone she treats with outright distrust and hostility – though, you can’t exactly blame her for that last one, considering how they meet. It is fairly nice to see such a roughly textured female lead whose core character isn’t necessarily compromised by the end of the film, even if the story does take a few predictable turns. Even when she’s given a frilly pink dress to wear, she maintains her hardened, determined personality and even her androgynous features when most movies would’ve had her softening and using her newfound conventional femininity as a means of conveying her character development. She does soften, but it’s in ways that are consistent to her character and make sense in the context of the story. (I should also note that, despite using the English title and lead’s name – April and not Avril – I watched this in the original French and not the English dub, so I don’t know how Angela Galuppo’s portrayal compares to Marion Cotillard’s, nor how that may change perceptions of the character.)
And that story really is the highlight of the film. Even while pulling from multiple inspirations, it still feels fresh and new, despite also being steeped in nostalgia. Some of the things that happen, particularly in the climax, are surprising and yet make sense and fit in with the film’s narrative about the responsibilities of using science for good and, in particular, not letting governments misappropriate all the good it can do by only using it to create more war. It’s a welcome and seemingly always timely message, as evidenced by the fact that the story begins in the 1800s, then takes place predominately in a timeframe when, in our timeline, we were developing the atomic bomb, and yet it still feels relevant to today’s political atmosphere, when politicians are preoccupied with ensuring military spending and proportionately less about space exploration and even curing diseases. And yet, even with all the sociopolitical commentary, the film still remains lighthearted, nicely paced, incredibly fun, and filled with plenty of humor and wonderment to keep kids and their parents engaged in a way that reminded me of, believe it or not, a lighter version of Batman: The Animated Series, which similarly mixed in plenty of nostalgic style and modern day sensibilities.
I couldn’t recommend April and the Extraordinary World enough, regardless of what your age is. Little kids are likely to love it. It doesn’t talk down to them and yet it still provides a lot of action, fun, and humor and even a neat talking cat they’ll probably want to name their next pet after. Adults are also going to appreciate those elements probably even more, as the film is itself pretty great and only just so happens to be a family-friendly animated film. The humor isn’t aiming for any certain, carefully studied demographic – not even the talking cat, who could have just as easily been the obnoxious comic relief but instead becomes one of the more interesting characters in the film. It has a great message, without getting too preachy, and some of the character dynamics, as a result of that, are a lot more interesting than what they initially seem. I even loved the strange, almost-detour of a climax, which I don’t even want to hint at here. Just… go check it out. I highly doubt you’ll regret it.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5