Galvanized by a surprise Oscar nomination for “A Cat in Paris,” animation co-directors Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol stand their stylistic ground with “Phantom Boy,” producing another pop-art kidpic whose vibrant hand-rendered look openly defies the trend toward smooth, computer-generated toons. Where the city of Paris gave “Cat” much of its personality, this relatively awkward follow-up takes place in an alternate New York — a parallel version of the Big Apple where everyone speaks French, and the citizens are progressive enough to elect a black mayor, but so technologically backward that an amateur hacker can bring the city to its knees.
Already acquired by Gkids, “Phantom Boy” ought to find a slightly wider theatrical audience than its predecessor, though script shortcomings make it less suited for kudos, if only because adults will find less to hold their interest. For young audiences, however, this story of a bedridden 11-year-old who discovers that he can float free of his body should easily delight, blending sentimental fantasy with radio-serial detective story elements to intriguing effect.
With his serious health problems, Leo makes for an extremely unconventional hero: His potentially terminal condition worries his family, but comes with the unusual perk of allowing him to float phantom-like wherever he pleases — from the city’s tall skyscrapers to the Statue of Liberty’s torch. While drifting around the hospital, Leo makes friends with a courageous cop, Alex, who’s recuperating on the floor below, volunteering his unique gift to serve a pivotal role in an ongoing police investigation.
Across town, a mobster who calls himself The Man With the Broken Face (for obvious reasons, since his Cubist countenance might as well be lifted from a classic Dick Tracy lineup) is planning an attack on the entire city’s infrastructure. As villains go, this oddly old-school goon doesn’t seem all that threatening — or competent, for that matter. While clearly modeled after Batman baddies, the Man’s jigsaw-puzzle face suggests a rejected Picasso painting, while his dainty feet and yappy mutt Rufus undermine whatever fear he’s supposed to strike into the city’s residents.
Since the Gotham police chief inexplicably refuses to pursue any of Alex’s hunches until the frustrated cop has fully recovered, that puts Leo in an invaluable position. Hovering unseen, he can spy on the bad guys — or even look out for their mutual friend, Mary, a fearless journalist who volunteers her services, communicating with Alex by cell phone, while Leo serves as his eyes and ears.
It’s a complicated arrangement, considering the sickly sidekick’s weird superpower comes with certain rules: Leo can only leave his body for so long, and while gone, he becomes almost comatose, able to speak and hear, but not move. (Will the boy die if he’s separated from his body for too long, and are those really reasonable emotional stakes for such a movie?) Animation-savvy viewers will spot conspicuous CG assists here and there, particularly with the boats and water featured during the climax, though the film’s most essential effect — Leo’s ghost-like blue glow — is as old-fashioned as it gets.
Though Felicioli and Gagnol’s visuals suggest colorful kidlit illustrations come to life, their labor-intensive style isn’t for everyone. Their hand-drawn characters have a strange malformed look, with uneven eyes and seemingly radioactive lines — the latter due to the jittery “SquiggleVision” technique, a common enough cheat used to suggest dynamism in relatively static low-budget toons. Aesthetically speaking, “Phantom Boy” may fall at the other end of the spectrum from super-polished DreamWorks and Pixar product, but the directors’ impressionistic touch won’t seem so alien to fans of Cartoon Network and Nicktoons series, which have conditioned youngsters to such playful expressionism and, alas, many of this creative project’s narrative shortcomings as well.