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Directors: Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci
Release Date: June 15, 2015
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

2015 was an excellent year for French animation. In May ‘The Little Prince’ came out (though largely animated in Canada, its French ties remain very clear), followed by the fresh ‘Tout en haut du monde’ (Long Way North) in June, and the lovely ‘Phantom Boy’ in September. That year I saw the last two on the Dutch Holland Animation Film Festival, and I knew of the existence of the first, but there was another great French animation film, which I had completely missed back then: ‘Avril et le monde truqué’ (April and the Extraordinary World) , also released in June. This is quite incomprehensible, for it’s a fine film, as well.

This film was entirely made to showcase the illustration style of French comic artist Jacques Tardi (born in 1946), one of the most idiosyncratic and most respected of all French comic authors. Now, Tardi’s classic comic ‘Adèle Blanc-sec’ had been made into a feature film before (2010), but that was a live action film, in which, of course, Tardi’s graphic style was lost. In ‘Avril et le monde truqué’, on the other hand, his hand is recognizable in every scene.

Tardi favors to set his stories in France during the belle époque period, roughly 1870 to 1918, but ‘Avril et le monde truqué’ takes place in 1941. Nevertheless, the complete film breathes Tardi’s favorite époque, because the story, conceived by director Franck Ekinci and screenplay writer Benjamin Legrand, is set in an alternate history in which science more or less stopped in 1870, thus before the taming of electricity.

The story starts in 1870, with a scientist looking for a serum to make soldiers immortal, but only succeeding in making two mysterious lizardly creatures talk. Then the film jumps to the background story of the alternate history, in which the steam age is extended enormously. Then one picks up the story-line with the scientist’s son, grandson and the latter’s wife trying to make the serum, as well. Young April also helps a little, and there’s also a talking cat present, called Darwin. Unfortunately, no scientist is allowed to work if not for the government, and the police is after the gang. During the chase scene, April’s parents and grandfather disappear, and she’s left alone with Darwin the cat.
Jump to 1941, in which April has become a young woman herself – also looking for the mysterious serum, while her aged cat lies in bed, coughing (there’s a lot of coughing in this film, subtly illustrating the enormous air pollution that comes with the burn of coal and charcoal).

I’ll not reveal the rest of the story, but be assured it’s pretty ludicrous. Nevertheless, it’s told very well, and never becomes dull or too unbelievable to buy, until the very last scenes, which are absolutely outrageous. Moreover, despite all the action, and a few deaths, the tone remains light and humorous, and the film never ceases to be one for the whole family.

Most interesting is the depiction of Avril herself: like Tardi’s comic star Adèle Blanc-Sec she’s a resourceful, strong and brave woman, who, in this case, also happens to be an intelligent scientist. She’s clearly way ahead of most of the (male) scientific community, and smarter than her male love interest. Between these two lovers things turn out fine in the end, but there are also two other couples depicted, which during the film are getting alienated from each other, with no chance of repair. This is a refreshing story twist, simply inconceivable in an American animated family film. Even more interesting is the film’s attitude to man and nature. The film asks some important questions, without falling into the trap of answering them, as well.

Of course, the major highlight of the film is its looks, especially for fans of Tardi’s work. Tardi’s style is a very idiosyncratic version of Hergé’s ligne clair, with much looser lines, and the use of strong blacks (most of his work is in black and white). The film transfers this style excellently to the animated screen. Both his character designs and world-making remain immediately recognizable. For example, April herself is clearly your typical Tardian heroine, her facial features resembling those of e.g. Adèle Blanc-sec, or Lili from ‘La débauche’ (2000). The other characters, too, look as if they’ve walked away from one of his books, and are a delight to watch. Special mention goes to inspector Gaspard Pizoni, one of the blundering policemen crowding Tardi’s oeuvre, and together with Darwin the comic relief of the film.

Even better, is the alternate world Tardi and the other film makers have created. Of course, their world is a version of steampunk, and their alternate version of Paris is certainly a well-conceived and magical place, with two Eiffel towers accompanying a hanging cable train to Berlin, the Opéra changed into a factory, and a towering statue of Napoleon III topping Montmartre, instead of the 1914 Sacré Coeur basilica. Steam-propelled cars fill the streets, and people stroll wearing gas masks, because of the heavy pollution, which renders most of the city in grey tones, fitting Tardi’s style perfectly. Tardi’s style is less fitting for the jungle scenes, however, and during these scenes, some of the magic of his style is lost.

The film makers cite Hayao Miyazaki as a major influence on their alternate history world, and indeed, there’s a certain kinship to Miyazaki’s ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ (1986) and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ (2004), which must have been the inspiration for the walking house featured in ‘Avril’. Curiously, they don’t mention Otomo’s ‘Cannonfodder’ (1994) or ‘Steamboy’ (2004), despite the obvious connections of these films to the world of ‘Avril’.

The animation, too, is very fine. The film may have been created entirely in the computer, the animation is clearly hand-drawn, with a little help of effective and certainly not too obtrusive computer animation, much in the vain of the use of computer animation in early Disney renaissance features, like ‘The Great Mouse Detective’ (1986) or ‘Aladdin’ (1992). The animation style has little of the squash and stretch principles of Disney animation, and is more akin to the Japanese animation tradition, which suits Tardi’s drawing style very well. Darwin the cat is a great example of fine animation: the character remains both a very convincing cat and a fussy character.

In all, ‘Avril et le Monde truqué’ is a surprise film, an absolute must-see for all Tardi-fans, but also recommended to all lovers of animated feature films and/or steampunk. Even if you don’t dig the zany story, there’s enough to enjoy to have a good time throughout the movie.

Watch the trailer for ‘April and the Extraordinary World’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘April and the Extraordinary World’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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