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'April And The Extraordinary World' Sags Under Its Own Narrative Weight

courtesy GKIDS Films

The story of April and the Extraordinary World by French animators and writers Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci may be better spoken than filmed. It's so loaded with detail and plotlines that you get lost. You lose track of characters or threads of the story. A person telling the story may be expressive enough to keep you engaged, but on screen, it's repetitious and preachy.

The movie begins in 1870, in the time of Napoleon III. A scientist named Gustave Franklin is ordered to develop a magical serum that will make soldiers invincible. His concoction misfires and winds up only making some animals talk, a cat named Darwin in particular. Then Franklin's laboratory explodes, killing both Franklin and Napoleon III, who does not die in his bed, as the historical emperor actually did.

In the scenario that follows, all the scientists in the world are rounded up and put to weapons research. The Earth suffers a great technological catastrophe and is left to muddle about for the next 70 years with only steam technology fired by coal.

The picture jumps to 1931 and then to 1941, and the great-grandchild of Franklin, named April (voiced by Marion Cotillard) becomes the center of the story. April gets caught in a mélange of chases with odd animals and robotic beings. It's the kind of random string of events that children think up to make stories go on forever. Not to mention that this imagined history overlooks minor events like the rise of Nazism and World War II. But why quibble?

Frankly, the most imaginative part of April and the Extraordinary World is the opening credits. Company credits are written on what look like jars and bottles on the shelves of an old pharmacy, on the small drawers of a library card catalogue and on a classroom blackboard. It's like a tour through a room in an old house or a museum, filled with gramophones, Bunsen burners and vials with corks. Actors' names appear on framed butterflies mounted on the wall.

The drawings are tinted with the patina of age. It's playful, touching, and best of all, the animation is hand-drawn, rich with the warmth and human touch of the artists. It's nothing at all like the sterile, cutesy uniformity and focus-group look of computerized Disney and Pixar animation. This look is right for a film that makes a constant point about how the makers of war squelch all that's good and creative about human curiosity and ingenuity.

Once the story starts, these actual artists draw a place that's unhappy and overwhelmed by the architects of warfare. It's a gray, ruined scene with wrecked buildings, broken windows, and primitive wheels, gears and steam.

In spite of the promising design, there's no grab to events and characters. They come too quickly and pile up on one another until it all feels like a grocery list of the troubles of a world gone wrong. For a film with a quirky pace and outlook, the actual animation of the figures just plods along. Characters are limited to stereotypic gestures, so the relentless narration has to carry the sense of things. The film tells instead of shows, which reduces the drawings to beautiful – and static – illustrations of a spoken text. They don't have enough independence or energy or life of their own.

April and the Extraordinary World certainly has ambition. It's about the desecration of the Earth along with human imagination and dignity, and the perversion of science, but it's not an articulate film. Its situations clog the story instead of revealing it. You keep hoping that the talents of these filmmakers will find their stride – co-director Christian Desmares supervised the animation of the magical Persepolis – but the movie never breaks free from its lecture.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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