A terrifyingly overgrown flea turns out to be harmless and likable in “A Monster in Paris,” and so does French animator Bibo Bergeron’s funny valentine to retro horror and musical conventions. Evincing a warmer, more personal touch than his splashy Stateside toons “Shark Tale” and “The Road to El Dorado,” this homegrown production warbles its way through a bevy of good-natured Gallic cliches and a sweet if scarcely inspired story about unexpected friendship and the infectious power of song. Still, it’s a modestly conceived kidpic unlikely to achieve monster-hit status outside Gaul, where it opens Oct. 12.
Unfolding in a gray, mist-enshrouded Paris circa 1910, the film takes excellent advantage of its turn-of-the-century setting by tipping its beret to various technological innovations of the period. The opening reels pay brief, affectionate tribute to the era of silent cinema with a glimpse of the black-and-white reels shown by film projectionist Emile (voiced by Jay Harrington).
Bergeron and Stephane Kazandjian’s script goes through some leisurely exposition before introducing the eponymous monster, a flea magnified to gargantuan proportions thanks to a freak accident overseen by Emile’s zany inventor friend, Raoul (Adam Goldberg). Fallout from this unfortunate incident involves Paris’ mayor, Victor Maynott (Danny Huston), a rotten bully hoping to exterminate the beast and boost his political cachet; and Raoul’s frenemy/love interest, Lucille (Vanessa Paradis), a nightclub chantoosie who befriends the misunderstood monster, names him Francoeur, and helps unlock his latent musical gifts.
A spontaneous lounge act, in which angel-winged Lucille supplies the vocals while a white-masked Francoeur accompanies on guitar, provides one of the film’s two hummable highlights, the other being a bewitching number titled “La Seine” (the songs and score were composed by M and Patrice Renson). These interludes prove more consistently diverting than the story, which tosses off a series of twists, deceptions and chase scenes as Lucille and her friends try to hide Francoeur from Maynott; it’s all engaging enough, but never kicks things up a notch to produce the desired levels of narrative invention or excitement.
Facial animation favors the sort of comic exaggeration that makes it easy to overlook the characters’ clearly digitized features and artificial-looking hair; on the non-human side, clear care has been taken to make Francoeur look benign but not exactly cuddly. While no d.p. is credited, the painterly backgrounds and delicate modulation of lighting and color tonalities from scene to scene betray a cinematographer’s sensitivity, shown to good effect in 3D. Images of the Eiffel Tower, the Sacre-Coeur and other Parisian landmarks blend with the film’s rainy weather patterns to make this an unusually lovely, melancholy mash note to the City of Lights.
Voicework on the English-language version reviewed was topnotch, with Paradis’ musical perf the clear standout.