The first thing most people will notice about the dreamy, heavily stylized animated noir Phantom Boy is that it doesn’t look like any other animated film from the past five years. Ever since Pixar’s Toy Story hit theaters in 1995, American theatrical animation has been an aggressive tech race, a competition between studios that keep raising the bar on how elaborate and immersive CGI images can be. Films like Finding Dory and How To Train Your Dragon create such rich, fully realized environments, it’s easy to fall into them without entirely noting how similar they all look. For the past 20 years, Pixar films have been a visual template for American animation, just like Walt Disney’s character designs and overall style became the expected standard for animated films decades earlier. All the copycatting means viewers rarely get an animated film as distinctive and unexpected as Phantom Boy. The French import lacks the emotional depth of a Pixar movie, or the visual sweep of DreamWorks’ better projects. But its deliberate flatness, simple color blocks, and sharp contrasts are a breath of fresh air.
Directors Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol previously teamed up for A Cat In Paris, a featherweight animated adventure about a smirky feline pulling double duty as a daytime pet to a grieving mute girl and a nighttime sidekick to a jewel thief. New York-based animation distributor GKIDS managed a coup in landing A Cat In Paris a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination in 2010, as it has with many of its prominent releases (The Secret Of Kells, Ernest & Celestine, Song Of The Sea, and more). But it was the weakest nominee in an already-weak year: A Cat In Paris is a strikingly pretty but shallow adventure that rushes through its paces without much developing its characters. With Phantom Boy, screenwriter Gagnol returns to many of the tropes he played with A Cat In Paris: a mournful kid, a spunky animal sidekick, a criminal mastermind with dumb flunkies, a heroic cop — but spends more time establishing the characters' identities and making them distinct. He also finds a more mature somberness that deepens the film's story.
The phantom boy of the title is Leo, a young New Yorker undergoing a long treatment for a serious illness. While hospitalized, he discovers he can send his spirit away from his body for short periods, observing the material world. He also finds he can interact with the spirits of unconscious people in his hospital, which is how he meets Lt. Alex Tanguy, a cop wounded while hunting down a mysterious villain who's using a computer virus to extort money from New York's government. Alex is confined to a wheelchair, but winds up with two agents representing him in the field: intrepid Lois Lane-esque reporter Mary Delauney, and Leo, who shadows Mary as a roving spirit, and reports back to Alex. The scenario veers close to Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, with Alex as the wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart character sending Grace Kelly out to crack a case (though this Grace Kelly is self-motivated and bold, to the point of being reckless and cavalier about danger). The film also resembles a superhero origin story. Leo boldly enjoys his invisibility and the ability to fly, but being Phantom Boy has its limits — when Mary keeps pushing her luck, Leo can't intervene, and it takes some clever teamwork to get her out of trouble.
Phantom Boy has a hefty comic side. Alex and Mary flirt like 1940s-crime-movie characters, jockeying to prove who's tougher and more arrogant, and only letting affection creep in around the edges. Leo has a cheery unflappability, and his glee at being indispensable to adults on a big adventure is infectious. And the villain's dopey henchmen and ridiculously smart and vicious tiny dog create their own comedy. The bad guy has a colorful, angular face out of a Cubist painting — the credits just call him "the man with the broken face" — and one running gag has him repeatedly attempting to launch into a prepared monologue about his origin story, which constantly gets cut off. That leaves Phantom Boy without a lot of dramatic weight or menace, since its antagonist is both a cipher and a joke. But Felicioli and Gagnol are aiming at a fairly young audience here, and they emphasize wonder and fleet action over major danger.
The plot is flimsy, especially when it comes to the computer virus, a cavalier plot device that's essentially malicious magic disguised as technology. But the visuals are striking. As with A Cat In Paris, Felicioli and Gagnol shoot for a distorted style vaguely reminiscent of Richard Sala's comics, all extreme camera angles and aggressively flat surfaces. The protagonists' faces are minimalist and distorted, sometimes with eyes nearly vertical in their heads, and simple slashes for noses. Some of the animation looks almost childishly rendered, in a naïve artistic style. But the abstraction of the backdrops highlights the film's otherworldly fantasy feel. And the film is full of marvelous small details, like the way Leo's smiley-face shirt contorts into a scowl when he slouches, or the way his shape wavers fluidly when he passes through physical items. His flying jaunt around New York City is especially beautiful, with a bird's-eye view of a warmly abstracted Central Park, and a thrill-ride dive off the Statue of Liberty. Phantom Boy isn't conventionally pretty or glossy, but it is full of strange and memorable images, especially when Leo's time in spirit form starts to run short.
Phantom Boy could stand to make a stronger commitment to its more surreal touches, like an opening superhero story that ends with a surprise, or Leo's eerie plasticity at certain points in the narrative. The film drops in a handful of unique visual textures and oddball touches, like its antagonist's Picasso-friendly face, but doesn't entirely earn them with an equally creative environment. The most creative moments often feel like outlying details in a world that's sometimes striving, not always successfully, for gritty noir realism and a touch of swaggering romance. Felicioli and Gagnol's latest may be trying to do a few too many things at once, given its short length and genial aims. But it's still something distinctive and different in a sea of shiny mirrors, all reflecting the same slick CGI style back at each other.
Note: Phantom Boy opens July 15th at New York's IFC Center in both the subtitled French version and an English-language dubbed version, which stars Fred Armisen, Vincent D'onofrio, and Jared Padalecki. It opens July 22nd at Los Angeles' Nuart Theatre in the English dub only. A full national rollout will follow: Check for local showings here.