Haunted by a vicious assault in Central Park, a group of kid geniuses spins way out of control in the Euro animated pic “The Prodigies.” Working with motion capture, CGI and 3D, former vidgame helmer Antoine Charreyron updates Gallic scribe Bernard Lenteric’s 1981 cult youth novel to the cutting-edge present. But while the flashy visuals might impress, the setpiece-focused screenplay keeps the whippersnapper protags at arm’s length, minimizing emotional involvement. Familiarity with the book should boost this June 8 release in Gaul, but the graphically violent film will be strictly niche fare offshore.
Version screened in the Cannes market was the director’s cut with English-language voices. The Francophone theatrical cut is said to be “slightly less tense,” though given the frequency and type of violence on display, “slightly” is probably the operating word here; the longer version would certainly be in R-rated territory Stateside.
A prologue establishes the backstory of Jimbo, a handsome computer genius (voiced by Jacob Rosenbaum as a child, Jeffrey Evan Thomas as an adult), who was locked up after he blamed himself for a childhood tragedy that killed his parents. When New York-based media mogul Charles Killian (Dominic Gould) recognizes the disturbed boy has special, hard-to-control mental powers, Jimbo is freed, and the powerful Killian makes him a protege.
Story proper kicks off 10 years later when Killian dies, leaving his Murdoch-like empire in the hands of his daughter, Melanie (Moon Dailly), while the “unhackable” online game Jimbo developed with Killian to find fellow geniuses suddenly yields several names after years of waiting. In order to convince Melanie to bring the kids from the four corners of the U.S. to New York, white-shirt-and-black-tie Jimbo dreams up a ratings cannon for Killian Network, an “American Idol”-like competish dubbed “American Genius” where brainy contestants vie for a spot in the finals, skedded to happen (suspension of disbelief required) at the White House.
Of course, the kids found via Jimbo’s game are among the most brilliant contestants. The junior Einstein dream team, ages 13 to 15, consists of Hari (Dante Bacote), from a violent Miami ‘hood; obese and sour-faced New Yorker Sammy (Nilton Martins); withdrawn Gil (Rosenbaum, doing double duty), from a trailer park in New Mexico; Liza (Laurence Carter), a stunning suburban blonde whose mom sees beauty-queen potential in her girl; and introverted Lee (Sophie Chen), from Asian immigrant parents.
A Benetton ad of suppressed adolescent angst and anger, their stylized looks reminiscent of the “Tomb Raider” games (Charreyron actually directed “Tomb Raider VI”), the five start unleashing their mind-controlled fury when an after-dark meeting in Central Park ends in a rather graphically portrayed rape. As happens during the film’s intense and violent moments, the scene cuts to an alternate reality where the fighting characters become monstrous creatures.
The complex plot remains comprehensible by staying close to the p.o.v. of Jimbo and his unsuspecting g.f. (Isabelle Van Waes), but what’s lacking is any deeper understanding of why these coldly observed, misunderstood geek outcasts would suddenly turn violent on such a massive scale, precluding any emotional investment in the increasingly delirious fight scenes and shootouts (otherwise well staged, courtesy of some expert motion-capture work).
Bright by day and noirish by night, New York is rendered with a more painterly eye that contrasts sharply with the characters’ more synthetic looks, while Charreyron’s mise-en-scene leans heavily on such vidgame-generation faves as “The Matrix.” Unusually for an animated film, product placement is ubiquitous to the point of overkill.