In an alternative 1941 the world’s scientists have been progressively kidnapped by unknown assailants, leaving the world in the steam age and rapidly running out of burnable resources. Any remaining scientists are hunted down and forced to work for their governments. In Paris lives April, the adult daughter of two scientists who were killed escaping the French Empire’s secret police. When she attempts to recreate a life-regenerating serum that her parents were developing, she is hunted down by the very forces that started kidnapping scientists decades ago.
It is a slightly complicated set-up, and one which relies on two extended prologues before April and the Extraordinary World genuinely gets moving. Stay with the film to that point, and it expands into a delightful animated feature packed with warmth, humour, drama and enough ideas to fill several movies. There is a talking cat sidekick, an ominous black cloud that buzzes around shooting lightning at people, and enough steampunk imagery to keep even the fussiest of gear-obsessed period costume freaks satisfied.
The film adapts a graphic novel by acclaimed French writer/artist Jacques Tardi, who is probably best known as the creator of Adele St Blanc – whose adventures were adapted to live action a few years ago by Luc Besson. It is a wonderful sort of science fantasy, presented in Tardi’s signature thick-line style. While the influences on April and the Extraordinary World are numerous and worn proudly on the filmmakers’ sleeves – Hergé, Miyazaki, Verne – the final result is distinctive and wonderfully original. The hand-drawn characters are comparatively simple in design, but move in a very effective and engaging fashion. Computer-generated animation provides much of the film’s infrastructure and cog-and-brass technology, but it is very well integrated with the human and animal characters. There is a great use of colour as well, with the earlier sequences in Paris typified by drab and polluted greys and browns before the later scenes become more colourful.
April is a beautifully realised protagonist: she is smart, quick-witted and energetic, yet is also allowed room to also show fear, regret and self-doubt. She is accompanied through this episodic, chase-heavy adventure by Darwin, a small cat given the ability to think and talk like a human thanks to one her parents’ early experiments. He seems an awful lot like another animated cat from Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, which is no bad thing. Julius, a young man who initially spies on April but subsequently teams up with her, is slightly less effective – he exists primarily to ask questions and be a suitable love interest.
In its second half the film takes a few unexpected right turns that may frustrate some viewers. The sense of period adventure abruptly makes way for a more outlandish science fiction story. I personally found it wonderfully inventive, but there is a jump to make and the film does ask a fair bit of its audience. While the film is broadly suitable for children, some of its latter scenes do get rather dark and emotionally complex.
April and the Extraordinary World is an excellent animated feature with likeable characters, stunning and creative imagery, and a fast-paced and nicely complex storyline. In Australia it has sadly been released to DVD with the American soundtrack only, featuring the likes of Susan Sarandon and Paul Giamatti. It is effective enough but I do long to hear the original French soundtrack instead, which features the voices of Marion Cotillard, Jean Rochefort and Philippe Katerine. The American bluray contains both soundtracks, but of course requires an ability to play Region A discs (Australia and the UK are Region B).