Lushly illustrated scenes, fantastical steampunk gizmos, and more soot that you can wag a broom at.
While Pixar has pioneered the art of CGI films, fans of traditional hand-drawn animation have to look outside Hollywood. Countries like Japan and France—which both have grand comic book traditions—still create gorgeously hand-drawn films, with the most popular imports being the breathtaking fantasies of Hayao Miyazaki like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. If you loved those films with their exquisite art and more mature tone, you’ll want to watch April and the Extraordinary World, a 2015 French science fiction film currently streaming on Netflix.
Like many of Miyazaki’s films, April and the Extraordinary World features a hard-nosed heroine living in a land where great flying machines exist alongside talking animals. April has more stripped-down animation in the style of Herge’s “ligne claire” and the tone is a bit darker. It’s set in an alternate Europe world filled with grime, rats, and looming grey buildings. It’s more sootpunk than steampunk.
April sets up its “extraordinary world” with an extended prologue that details how history went wrong. Here, the French emperor Napoleon III dies in an accident in a lab where scientists are trying to create super soldiers with an “ultimate serum.” With Napoleon III dead, European history is completely changed. The Franco-Prussian war ends and the World Wars never happen. Additionally, the top scientists of the world from Einstein to Tesla mysteriously disappear, leading to a different world where steam is still the dominant technology. Europeans have burnt up all the trees on the continent to power their great machines, and the French Empire goes to war with the British over the vast forests of Canada. The result is a soot-covered world that reminds us how humanity is prone to destroying our planet no matter what technologies we develop.
The main story involves the granddaughter of the original “ultimate serum” scientist. Her parents, also scientists, disappeared after also failing to solve the scientific riddle. April is hunted by the police and living with Darwin, a cat who can speak thanks to a failed version of the serum. (Talking cats are cool, but not really capable enough to be super soldiers.) Darwin is dying and April is trying to finalize the invincibility serum to save his life. Soon, April and her cat Darwin are thrust into an epic adventure featuring kidnapped scientists, lizards in robot suits, and cyborg rats. It may be a dark world, but it is a beautifully rendered one with plenty of visual delights like a Paris with two Eiffel Towers where massive hanging cable cars pass through.
April and the Extraordinary World is adapted from the work of Jacques Tardi, a French comics master, and the English voice actors include Paul Giamatti, Susan Sarandon, and Tony Hale. Its messages about the dangers of militarism and environmental destruction might be a bit heavy handed, but they’re also imminently relevant in our world that seems constantly on the brink of war while climate change threatens to destroy us all. And you’ll be awed by the animation either way.
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