‘April and the Extraordinary World’: Steampunk Paris grim, lovely

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Twin Eiffel towers are the backdrop for scientist April and her talking cat, Darwin, in “April and the Extraordinary World.” | GKIDS FILMS

“April and the Extraordinary World” is a visual delight, an animated French steampunk adventure that is smart, exciting and wonderfully weird.

And we haven’t even gotten to the talking cat.

That would be Darwin (voice of Philippe Katerine), whose name is no accident. In directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci’s film, science is held in high regard, because it is in such short supply.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The movie, based on Jacques Tardi’s graphic novel, takes place in an alternate world, one set up in an extended prologue in which we learn Napoleon III was tinkering around with science, trying to create a serum that will result in an army of immortal monkeys (just go with it). He enlists the services of the brilliant Gustave (Jean Rochefort), who is in it for the science, not the militarism.

Things go awry, but the serum does make animals talk, including a couple of mysterious creatures that get away before the lab blows up, taking Napoleon III and that version of history with it.

This spells the end of scientific innovation. No electricity. No cars, no planes, none of the things we’ve grown used to. Fermi, Einstein and any other scientist you can namecheck disappear as soon as they come up with anything interesting.

Instead, it’s a steampunk world, and for all the cosplayers who think that sounds insanely cool, you can leave out the “cool” part. The world runs on ash from charcoal, over which France and the U.S. are currently at war. Both want control of Canada — and its trees.

It’s a grim, grimy, polluted world. There is almost no vegetation left; one of the last surviving oak trees is displayed as a museum piece. The inventions are convoluted and beautiful, in their way, but the world itself is depressing.

Living in this world is April (Marion Cotillard), Gustave’s granddaughter and a brilliant scientist herself. In 1931, she is living in hiding after her parents, who were close to discovering the serum Gustave was working on, vanished after a run-in with Pizoni (Bouli Lanners). He is a dopey policeman who dedicates his life to keeping taps on April, convinced that she knows where her parents are and will eventually lead him to them.

April and Darwin, the talking cat, wind up in a series of misadventures when, 10 years later, Pizoni employs a street thief named Julius (Marc-Andre Grondin) to find her hideout. This leads to answers to questions that April has had about her family and the serum, and affords plenty of opportunities for Darwin to steal the show.

The ideas put forth are thought-provoking, even if, in the final act, various plot threads get thrown together in ramshackle fashion. (Even French animated films about alternate universes are not immune to a love of explosions — not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

But the look of the film, with its clear-line, hand-drawn animation is stunning. Any good film creates its own world; working in animation gives Desmares and Ekinci the freedom to do so literally. So we see twin Eiffel towers, pedal-powered contraptions flying through the air, bizarre electrical storms, spying rats (of the four-legged variety) and more, all seen through the fog of pollution. An interesting world to visit, certainly, but as they say, you wouldn’t want to live there.

Extraordinary, indeed.


GKids Films presents a film directed by Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci and written by Ekinci and Benjamin Legrand, based on a graphic novel by Jacques Tardi. Running time: 105 minutes. Rated PG (for action/peril including gunplay, some thematic elements and rude humor.). Screening both dubbed and in French with English subtitles at the Gene Siskel Film Center starting Friday.

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