Multiple Production Companies (2015), GKids/Universal Studios (August 2, 2016), 1 Blu-ray + 1 DVD, 107 mins, 1.85:1 ratio, DTS Master Audio 5.1, Rated PG, Retail: $34.98
A teenage girl, who lost her parents in a mysterious incident when she was young, attempts to solve the scientific mystery that led to the tragedy in the first place. In a world still powered by steam, due to the disappearances of countless scientists over the years, the girl’s quest seems nearly impossible.
The Sweatbox Review:
It is not only in America that the film world looks to cartoonists for story ideas. In the USA, that currently has led to dozens of comic book heroes and villains invading cinema and television screens. In France and Belgium, there is a long tradition of humorous adventure characters leaping from page to screen, including Tintin, Asterix, and Lucky Luke. Recently, the prolific imagination of Jacques Tardi has unleased feisty young ladies in period costumes, battling bizarre menaces. In 2010, Luc Besson based his filmThe Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec on a series of Tardi graphic novels that take place in the 1910s. The subject of this review turns the Adele premise somewhat on its head, as the filmmakers enlisted Tardi to create an extraordinary world this time, with an almost ordinary (but no less remarkable) heroine.
The resulting film, April And The Extraordinary World, is a steampunk adventure based largely on the ideas and designs of Tardi, and featuring a heroine with the same profile as Adele, existing in an alternate 1941 Paris. The film is a product of many different production companies spread across France, Belgium, and Canada, though it certainly does not feel patched together. It begins with a prologue that shows just how the history of this world began to deviate from our own. Prior to the Franco-Prussian war, Napoleon III has ordered his scientists to devise a formula for invincible soldiers. The emperor visits one lab, but is unsatisfied with the scientist’s experiments, and his resulting tantrum turns into disaster, as the lab is destroyed and the emperor and scientist are each killed. Napoleon’s son becomes emperor, and he signs a truce with Prussia, thereby evading war.
Just as important to that twist, the top scientists of the world begin to disappear, and this goes on for decades. Scientific progress halts, and the world continues to be dependent on the burning of coal, and then wood, for its energy needs. Electricity is never discovered or harnessed, and countless other inventions never materialize. In terms of technological progress, the world is stagnant, as well as filthy. People need to wear gas masks to go outside due to the heavy pollution. And, with all of Europe now deforested, France looks to declare war on Canada to gain access to its vast forests.
In the midst of this, April, the great-granddaughter of the French scientist who was killed by Napoleon, is being hunted by a disgraced police officer, Gaspar Pizoni. Pizoni had earlier missed out on capturing April’s parents, who were working on a formula for immortality. The clash between Pizoni and April’s parents ended when a black cloud appeared and seemingly killed her parents, leaving April an orphan, with only her talking cat Darwin for company. Pizoni was demoted, but never lost his desire to track down any member of April’s family.
This leads Pizoni to pursuing April in hope of also finding her grandfather, though it is April who is working on her parent’s formula. Little does she realize that their last attempt at the formula is even now filling the fluid of her childhood snow globe. As the story unfolds, April attempts to evade Pizoni, while coming closer to the secrets of her family, including discovering the whereabouts of her grandfather. Meanwhile, the mysterious forces that caused her parents’ demise return, also chasing her in order to find even a clue to the secret to immortality. April and her grandfather will need to rely on help from a young man of questionable integrity to evade the authorities, cyborg rats, and bike-powered zeppelins, all the while untangling the secrets of her family and the mystery of why the world has been kept in the steam age. And even if you think you know where the story is headed, due to numerous clues being dropped along the way, you are bound to be surprised at how it all unfolds.
Many reviewers of this film have heralded its inventiveness and unique setting, though readers of steampunk fiction (or its precursors in Welles and Verne) will find the tropes familiar. Nevertheless, it is a genre explored only sporadically in western animation (anime views will remember Nadia and Steamboy, while still fuming at the liberties that Disney allegedly took in lifting ideas from Nadia to make their Atlantis film). In an animation landscape currently overrun with Minions, anthropomorphic animals, and bumbling loser heroes, mostly presented in frustratingly similar computer-generated animation, it is a wonderful thing to see a hand-drawn steampunk film with this level of inventiveness. From the altered history, to the bizarre inventions and the twin Eiffel Towers (perhaps symbolic of America’s own doomed Twin Towers), the film never ceases to keep the viewer’s interest.
Note that when I say “hand-drawn,” I do not actually mean to say that the film was animated traditionally. Not exactly. All of the art from the film was done by hand but digitally, on graphics tablets. Regardless, it is always terrific to see skilled 2D animation, based on the drawings of artists.
I do admit that the pacing sags a bit here and there in the middle section of the film, but by the time the story leaves the environs of Paris to take us on a far-out adventure, I was totally captivated. Here is a real STORY, with interesting, non-typical characters doing unexpected things. This film has familiar elements, but is not formulaic. I say it all the time when writing reviews, but thank heaven for world cinema.
Is This Thing Loaded?
There are not a lot of bullet points on the case, but this disc does come with a nice featurette entitled The Origin Of The Extraordinary World (28:00). This look at the making of the film begins with Jacques Tardi himself describing how he came up with the look for the film, and traces the film’s origins back to his previous comics work on The Arctic Marauder and Adele Blanc-Sec. The other filmmakers also chip in, further discussing how the film came together. We also get to see how the artists delivered the film hand-drawn yet digitally. As all the participants are speaking French, there are removable English subtitles provided. Interestingly, one of the co-directors confesses that he was not even familiar with Tardi’s books, so he had no real depth of understanding about what Tardi would bring to the project. Aside from that unfortunate admission, this is a well realized documentary. (The same man at least admits to admiration for Miyazaki’s films, whose influence is clear in the film, harkening back especially to Castle In The Sky.) As the only film-specific feature on the disc, aside from the trailer, it manages to satisfy nicely.
The front-loaded Trailers include Kubo And The Two Strings, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Ratchet & Clank, and Only Yesterday. The main menu also allows you to view the trailer for April And The Extraordinary World, or to see GKids ads for Only Yesterday, Boy & The World, When Marnie Was There, The Prophet, The Tale Of Princess Kaguya, and Song Of The Sea.
The standard Blu-ray case houses a disc on either side (one Blu-ray, plus a DVD with all the same features and options). The cover slip has the titles embossed. The interior of the case also holds a Digital HD code.
Ink And Paint:
Tardi’s character designs border on the simple, but the look of the film is rich and detailed. With all the art done in the digital realm, there was much opportunity for the artists to use every digital tool at their disposal, resulting in layered hues and a variety of wonderful effects, while still staying within the milieu of the story and its genre. The transfer largely holds up on the Blu-ray, though the eagle-eyed will still spot some banding or aliasing. The lushness of the images, however, should prove distracting enough that the overall impression is that of perfection.
Two audio tracks are available, and they actually represent two versions of the film. For those who would like to listen in the original French, there is a DTS 5.1 lossy track. For those that insist on either English or a lossless track, you may opt for the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Selection of either will bring up the appropriate version of the film, different for their use titles or of other on-screen languages, such as those found in newsreels or on-screen time captions. This means that languages cannot be toggled on the fly; you must return to the beginning of the film if you wish to switch languages.
Both tracks excel at using directionality, whether it be from trains tracking across the screen, or airships swooping through the sky. Dialogue is distinct, and sound effects are pleasingly effective.
Among the French voices, the one most likely to be known by American audiences is Marion Cotillarde, while the English cast utilizes Paul Giamatti, Tony Hale, Susan Sarandon, and JK Simmons.
Subtitles are present in English and French, as well as English captioning. Note that the DVD has all the same options as the Blu-ray, but its audio comes in Dolby Digital 5.1.
The story of April And The Extraordinary World rests comfortably in the realms of both steampunk and pulp fiction. Small elements may seem familiar, but most viewers should find this a refreshing, original film replete with fantastic images and a gripping story. For the most part, it moves along nicely, though there is a bit of drag in the middle, but before you know it the adventure expands into something so much greater. Video and audio keep up as well, and a nice featurette on the making of the film polishes things off, to make this one of the more satisfying Blu-ray releases of the year.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?