I’ve been watching a ton of anime lately, and while I love it, it sort of makes one there is animation coming from any other country. That’s why a movie like France’s April and the Extraordinary World can come out of nowhere and hit you in the face with its own style and imagination.
The story feels like the lovechild of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and some of Pixar’s best, with with an art style reminiscent of Moebius and Herge. Plus, there’s a talking cat named Darwin, so how can you not like that?
The film is based on a graphic novel by Jacques Tardi, and it feels like it. All of the design elements are so specific and the world feels very real. The original French is Avril et le Monde truqué, which literally translates to April and the Twisted World. The film takes place in a world where science completely stopped in the steam and coal age, and that the Napoleonic empire remained well into the 1900s. So because of that, everything in Paris is sooty and grey, the machinery is all very basic and made of giant sheets of metal. It’s a Steampunk movie, but with a sense of irony and and attitude that’s very, well, French.
The story begins in 1870 with Napoleon’s attempts to make super invincible ape soldiers to fight in the Franco-Prussian war, but something goes wrong and two hyper-intelligent animal test subjects escape. The experiments turns the tide and as a result, Napoleon wins instead of loses and his descendants remain in power the next 70 years. All the great scientists who were supposed to make advancements – people like Tesla and Einstein and Edison – disappeared under strange circumstances, so things remain in a hyper-steam age for the foreseeable future. The family of the scientist who tried the make the invincibility formula are now trying again, but the French police, led by the angry and bumbling Pizoni, looks to apprehend them for doing science for anyone but the Emperor. The young daughter, April, gets away with the formula in her snow globe as the grandfather Pops gets away, and her parents are kidnapped by a strange electronic cloud.
We then cut to 1941 where April (voiced as an adult by Marion Cotillard) is living in a metal statue of Napoleon with her cat Darwin, who has been made hyper intelligent through experimentation. She tries day after day to recreate the formula her parents and grandfather were working on. A young guy named Julius finds her and befriends her, though he’s actually working for Pizoni. April, Julius, and Darwin have to evade the authorities and the electronic cloud in their search for the truth about what happened to all the scientists, leading to the strangest discovery of all.
I can’t tell you enough how much of a joy this movie was to watch. Every inch of the frame is filled with some kind of amazing visual or bit of archaic future technology. There are two Eiffel Towers, travel is done by steam engine cars or enormous cable cars that travel on wires above everything. There are throwaway references to things happening in Canada and the U.S. that are particularly funny, and on the trip from Paris to Berlin, the conductor says “We should arrive in a quick nine hours.”
The movie feels at once like an all-ages adventure and like some kind of satire for adults. There is a bit of gunfire and blood, but it’s not gratuitous by any means. And we really start to love spending time on this adventure with April and Darwin, and later Julius, and later Pops, and there’s always something new to look at, whether it’s a house on legs that swims like a frog or a giant flying contraption or an underground terrarium for lizards in robot suits (yes, there are lizards in robot suits).
April and the Extraordinary World is opening in limited release this week and I would highly, highly recommend seeking it out if you can. It’s a journey to a completely different version of Earth and a science fiction adventure that will still be timeless in a further 70 years.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 burritos.
Images: Studio Canal
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!