April and the Extraordinary World finds the heart in a retro-mechanical Paris

Miyazaki meets Pixar in this steampunk adventure

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Read enough Franco-Belgian comics, especially in the fantasy / science-fiction / horror genre, and you’ll start to recognize a shared tone: a certain mix of straight-faced humor and a wild, almost improvised-feeling narrative. From serious world-builders like Jean Giraud, Jean-David Morvan, and Christophe Blain to more playful fantastists like Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim to historic genre-influencers like Hergé and Peyo, comic creators working in the French tradition tend to wander all over the landscape, and there’s no predicting from the start of a story where it might go in the end.

There are upsides and downsides to this style. The outlandish film adaptations of French comics like The Triplets Of Belleville or The Rabbi’s Cat are a blast in their own way. But the dream logic often makes the characters less accessible, and leaves viewers scrambling to keep up rather than following along with the building tension. That’s one reason the French animated film April and the Extraordinary World is so surprising and satisfying: it takes up the outsized creativity and puckish humor of the best French fantasy comics, but couples it with a straight-line plot that makes surprisingly logical sense, at least for a tall tale featuring lizards in robot suits and an immortal talking cat. April isn’t afraid of holding the audience’s hand a bit, but it still leaves plenty of surprises for each stop along the way.

The film's story was inspired by the comics of Jacques Tardi, who contributed art and wound up with a credit for "creating the visual universe." That universe bears little resemblance to his other film adaptation, Luc Besson's florid The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, except in that both of them take place in alternate, steampunk versions of the past. And both films follow plucky heroines with a marked impatience toward the world around them. April and the Extraordinary World starts in 1870, just before the Franco-Prussian War, with a scientific catastrophe during an effort to create monstrous super-soldiers for the armies of Napoleon III. The disaster undermines the war effort, and Napoleon IV signs a peace treaty with Prussia, altering the course of history. Then the world's most famous and innovative scientists—€”Einstein, Marconi, Nobel, Pasteur, and others—start disappearing, and scientific innovation drags to a halt, leaving the world stuck in an era before oil or atomic power. By 1931, steam and charcoal power still dominate, and the industrialized world is stuck scrabbling over lumber and living under oppressive clouds of soot.

There's a metaphor in all this about the modern dependence on oil, governmental apathy about climate change and pollution, and the dangers of public disinterest in scientific research. But directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci, working from a script by Ekinci and Benjamin Legrand, keep the tone light and the action high. Instead, the story focuses on a family of scientists hiding from the French government, and working on an elixir to end aging and death. April (voiced by Marion Cotillard) is a child eager to assist her parents, Annette and Paul (Macha Grenon and Olivier Gourmet), and her grandfather Pops (Jean Rochefort, wonderful as ever) in their research. But an officious detective named Pizoni (Benoît Brière) tracks them down to conscript them into France's weapons program, and the family is torn apart. A decade later, April is a bitter obsessive, living in an immense, hollowed-out public statue with her talking cat Darwin (Philippe Katerine), the result of a failed experiment. Pizoni, still fixated on her family, sends a hapless young thief named Julius (Marc-André Grondin) to spy on her, just as a series of breakthroughs change her life considerably. And suddenly, 70 years of the past collide wildly with the present, and send April, Darwin, Julius, and Pizoni off on a reckless adventure.

April and the Extraordinary World takes a faintly hilarious and kid-friendly tack on the entire idea of science, as one giant, homogenous field that passes down hereditary lines, and is also just this side of pure magic. The film keeps all its scientists in lab coats and jumpsuits as though science couldn't possibly be performed without the right uniform, and treats its science-wizards almost as a separate species—a faintly daffy and obsessive species, but still an amiable enough one. The cartoon physics also keeps the danger level low: characters stretch, squash, and bounce back from terrible falls as if they'd been hit with a Looney Tunes mallet. But while the film is strictly PG, it never feels like it's aimed primarily at children. The elaborate world-building, the focus on history and the movement of empires, and the pure interest in technology all suggest the creators have an older and more sophisticated audience in mind.

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(GKIDS)

April herself is a terrific heroine: She's smart and brave, plain and prickly. She's more interested in the life of the mind and in forwarding her parents' work than in getting along in society. She clearly wears the pain of her decade as an orphan living on the streets, and as a young adult, she casually steals to get by, and treats other people as hostile nuisances. But her anger is aimed at the circumstances that robbed her of a family and a future, not at the world and the wonders it contains. She takes to the adventuring life like a duck to water.

And once her past catches up with her and those adventures start, she winds up feeling like a Pixar heroine in a Hayao Miyazaki world, with a touch of globe-trotting Hergé expansiveness thrown in for flavor. Miyazaki is most clearly felt in the movie's mechanical wonders, from the clanking robot suits to the derelict airships to the charcoal-puffing steam cars, with their calliope engines. Steampunk at heart is about technology with personality, and the personality comes out in every weird, awkward, and whimsical creation clanking around Tardi's vision of 1931 Paris.

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(GKIDS)

But one of April's big pleasures is the way all the wild gimcracks and the big action sequences take a back seat to its characters and their emotions. It's a rousing, thrilling adventure, beautifully animated in rich, deep hues with a look that meets neatly between the flow of hand-drawn cels and the smoothness of digital animation. But it's also a powerfully emotional piece, about family and friendship, about betrayal and disappointment, and about first love and old enmities. Those emotions sometimes feel comically outsized, especially in Darwin the cat. he's a loyal and brave companion, but also an irrepressible, boastful ham. At the same time, the dynamics between April's family are rich and complicated, and help ground a story that's wild and unlikely enough to need some down-to-earth elements.

There's plenty to unpack in April and the Extraordinary World, about how history happens, how governments and individuals alike can make selfish decisions, and how little it takes to change the world. But there's also enough energy and creativity to make the film a fun ride, a sit-back-and-watch-it-go kind of experience with its own demented logic. It doesn't wander as far afield as many French comics and animated features, but that just lets it keep a tight rein on a story that makes flawless emotional sense. It's an adventure for the heart as well as the mind.

Note: April and the Extraordinary World opens March 25th at New York's IFC Center in both the subtitled French version and an English-language dubbed version, which also stars Cotillard, plus Paul Giamatti, Tony Hale, Susan Sarandon, and J.K. Simmons. The film opens in Los Angeles on April 1st and will expand for a national run on April 8th.