by Patrick Feutz
The first animated film adaptation of the works of graphic novelist Jacques Tardi may lose the distinction of being his first film adaptation at all to Luc Besson’s live-action The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec in 2010, but co-directors Christian Desmares’ and Franck Ekinci’s April and the Extraordinary World more than makes up for the missed opportunity to call itself first by remaining remarkably loyal to the look and feel of Tardi’s work - and likely meeting Tardi’s approval, considering he’s credited as Graphic Creator for the film - rendering his steam swept, stopped-watch vision of an alternate early 20th century in a crisper, cleaner detail, all the better to goggle at Tardi’s mechanical contraptions born of boilers, bicycle chains, and blimps. It’s hard not to wonder what other marvels of stunted technology wait further down the gondola line past the twin Eiffel Towers central station, but the eyefuls of grubby industrialist cityscape delivered by the animation team are already a joy to behold as the eponymous heroine and others chase each other across a gaslamp fantasy Paris.
Flashing back to the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, we witness the halting point of history as we know it, with Napoleon III getting unceremoniously blown up during a disastrous visit to Gustave Franklin, a scientist whom the emperor charged to provide with an invincibility serum for his soldiers. Fast forward to 1931, then again to 1941, and we see the continuation of a dominant French Empire, a mechanized civilization operating in a blasted landscape under the command of Napoleon V. A better substitute for the Third Reich? Sure. But only insofar as it hasn’t decided to obliterate any one race of people in its desperate attempt to win the “Energy Wars” in which it’s been pitted, thanks to the mysterious disappearances of notable scientists throughout the decades, all of whom would have contributed to the development of newer, better technologies. If there’s anyone to remind us that France’s military pursuits were at one time on par with, or even greater than, the suicidal insanity of the Kaiser’s or the Fuhrer’s, many of his readers would be quick to point to Tardi, who’s well known for his pacifistic views and fixation on the horrors of World War I. So instead of genocide, Tardi offers a government that hunts down and conscripts what scientists remain to its cause, allowing for zero experimentation outside of the arms race. Hardly a model for sustainability, but disturbingly relevant in a world that still wavers on climate change and argues against funding for NASA.
It’s against this backdrop that we join the young April, granddaughter to Gustave Franklin and scientist in her own right, who was orphaned in 1931 when her researcher parents vanished in a freak electrical storm running from the police. With only her sick, talking cat Darwin for company, she seeks to recreate Gustave’s serum in time to heal her feline friend. Thanks to the intervention of bumbling police inspector Pizoni, who’s hell-bent on restoring his reputation after his pursuit of April’s parents ended in calamity, and aided by two-timing snitch Julius, she finds herself drawn deeper into the mystery of the world’s disappearing scientists as she runs from one gloriously over-engineered locale to another in an attempt to uncover the fate of her parents.
Throughout its many set pieces and interludes, April carries an air of self-satisfaction that never comes across as smugness, acting like a corrective to the bombast typical of North American animated features. Here there’s no impression that Desmares and Ekinci are trying to impress. Instead, April’s production team embody the essence of the tinkerer in his attic workroom, producing gadgets out of thin air as much for his own amusement as for ours. No amount of peril can squash the collective twinkle in their eyes as they strive to find the wry humor in their depictions of rampant consumerism and the physical comedy inherent to Tardi’s fantasy world’s goofily intricate machines. By eschewing the soap box, April avoids drawing too much attention to any one aspect of its being, be that its whimsical wonder at invention, its mature comprehension of subtext, its environmentalist angle, or its childish sense of adventure.
Far be it for some aspects to fly too far under the radar, though. The greater conflict to reveal itself amounts to a primal battle of the sexes, and April herself is a female role model for the ages. While some people busy themselves petitioning Disney about every princess under the sun, April is present and accounted for, a scrappy intellectual defined entirely by the quality of her mind. Even Julius, who dismisses her at first for being plain, and thus unworthy of his attention, is won over in the end, but his attraction to her takes a distant third place to April’s concern for her family and the world at large. Given the charm instilled by Tardi’s creation, she doesn’t come across as too proud, but selfless. The same could be said for April and the Extraordinary World in general, a film that embodies a lot of great ideas without being a brat about it.
April and the Extraordinary World is screening in the UICA Movie Theater May 20 - June 09, 2016