In the heart of Paris, a repurposed monastery known as the Musee des Arts et Metiers serves as a technological shrine to human innovation, where school kids marvel at all manner of inventions, from Foucault’s pendulum to the first robots and computers. Now think how different that museum’s treasures might be had all the world’s best scientists disappeared from the face of the earth at the turn of the previous century, leaving Paris mired in the Age of Steam. That’s the alternate reality that graphic novelist Jacques Tardi imagined in “April and the Extraordinary World,” which has now inspired a dynamic animated sci-fi adventure that delivers on the lofty, retro-styled promise of “Tomorrowland” — or more aptly, “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” — in a way that stimulates the intellect of all who watch. The visually striking, hand-drawn toon should fare great in France, where it opens Oct. 14, with GKids releasing early next year in the U.S.
Known in French as “Avril et le monde truque,” the film’s tricky title has already been translated several ways — as “April and the Twisted World,” or “A Rigged World” — and could conceivably change again before reaching theaters. Which begs the question: How best to christen a film whose downbeat reality never advanced past the Industrial Revolution without undermining its imagination-tickling dimension of hope and possibility? Tardi’s alternate vision of Paris, starkly brought to life by co-directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci, appears choked by a heavy cloud of coal smog, many of its most famous landmarks repurposed to serve the bleak world order — one in which nearly all the great thinkers have mysteriously vanished, forcing society to rely on outdated science and inventions.
The toon reveals the moment when human progress changed for the worse in its opening scene, as Napoleon III dies not in exile but in a peculiar mad-scientist mishap. Per Tardi’s premise, the emperor was toying with the laws of science long before Hitler, employing an otherwise responsible brainiac named Gustave (voiced by the great Jean Rochefort) to develop an army of invincible soldiers. Gustave’s experiments were a bust, but his serum did yield an even more intriguing side effect: His test animals gained the ability to speak. When Gustave’s laboratory goes up in smoke, two lizard-like creatures escape, changing the course of history in ways his granddaughter April (Marion Cotillard) won’t discover or expose for another few decades, while preventing such innovations as aviation, electricity, even cinema, as leading scientists start to go missing.
The rest of the story takes place more than half a century later, first in 1931, when April narrowly survives an intense run-in with over-zealous police inspector Pizoni (Bouli Lanners, balancing gruff menace with buffoonery) that leaves her an orphaned street urchin, alone in the world except for her talking cat Darwin (Philippe Katerine), before settling into its oppressive version of Paris, circa 1941. Here, Eiffel has built a second tower alongside his first, creating a massive transit center (“high-speed” travel gets passengers from Paris to London in 84 hours!). Meanwhile, pollution has killed off nearly all vegetation, and the Grand Palais — Paris’ beautiful Beaux Arts exhibition space — now serves as a giant greenhouse for one of the planet’s last surviving oak trees.
Amid such depressing circumstances, April attempts to carry on her family’s work from her hiding place inside the hollowed-out head of a Statue of Liberty-like monument, as Darwin wheezes on his deathbed (playing the feline as a weary old intellectual, Katerine makes Darwin the film’s most memorable character). Though disgraced and demoted, officer Pizoni has never given up his hunt for April’s parents, whom he’s convinced must still be alive, probably hiding out wherever all the other missing scientists have disappeared — say, in an Ayn Randian commune somewhere, hoarding their inventions for themselves.
The truth proves considerably more macabre, but wonderfully ties the film’s sooty Steampunk aesthetic to a long-standing tradition in which outlandish villains hatch doomsday scenarios from the comfort of their high-tech lairs. Seeing as how cartoon production designs are limited only by their creators’ imaginations, the medium of animation has steadily raised the bar for built-out evil headquarters over the years (nowhere more than Japan, where such visionary pics as “Metropolis” and “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” leave indelible impressions). That said, by virtue of its period setting, “April” seems more directly connected to “Flash Gordon” and other vintage adventure serials (the sort that have inspired the likes of George Lucas and Guillermo del Toro), featuring a climactic showdown that feels retro, even as it benefits from elements that would have been virtually impossible to render in live-action.
Overall, the look of “April and the Extraordinary World” appears deceptively plain, owing largely to the style of Tardi’s graphic novel, with its heavy “ligne claire” (or “clear line”) drafting technique, a French comicbook approach popularized by Tintin creator Herge. But that look is harder to achieve than one might guess and a welcome break from the texture- and detail-rich computer-animated default so popular today. By contrast, “April’s” characters boast simplified, appealing features, going about their business in a meticulously hand-drawn 2D universe — just one more vintage touch (aided in places by virtually impossible-to-discern CG effects) in a film with instant-classic appeal, cinched by Valentin Hadjadj’s timeless, mood-setting score.
Here, within a thrilling tale that respects the intelligence of its audience, attentive parents will find the antidote to their fear that watching cartoons might rot your brain. If anything, “April and the Extraordinary World” seems bound to do the opposite, encouraging children to pursue their own passions and creativity. At the same time, Ekinci et Benjamin Legrand’s script empowers its female heroine (Cotillard is terrific in the French-language version, and one hopes for an equally strong perf from the English dub), while presenting a wide variety of complex behavior choices for grown-ups to discuss with youngsters after viewing together, as characters — such as streetwise traitor Julius (Marc-Andre Grondin) — frequently switch their allegiances and learn from their mistakes. The film, which deservedly claimed the top prize at the 2015 Annecy Animated Film Festival, is the rare toon that leaves kids inspired not to buy toys, but to make the world a better place.