The best movie opening this weekend is based on a comic book. It features a grand conclusion where allies turn against each other, the good guys and bad guys engage in a horrible battle, and there's a long countdown to the detonation of a doomsday device.
The name of this movie is April and the Extraordinary World, an animated film from France. Should you be looking for comic book thrills in hopes of skipping the absolutely putrid Batman v Superman, you're in luck, because April and the Extraordinary World will provide them in spades — while also offering characters worth caring about and a story that makes sense.
Also, there's a talking cat, something that Batman v Superman very much does not have.
This is a movie unlike any other
The best thing about April and the Extraordinary World is how it's utterly unlike most comic book movies — and most superhero movies — produced in the US. It's a loose, scrappy tale that blends pulpy adventure with a young woman's coming of age, and then adds a healthy dollop of mad science.
April is the daughter of two brilliant scientists — and her father is also the son of a brilliant scientist. As the film begins, her parents are trying to create a serum that will turn men invincible. (A not-quite-right version of it gives her cat, Darwin, the ability to speak, which is how the movie comes into its talking feline.)
But April and her parents live in an alternate world, where scientists are frequently rounded up and imprisoned by the government, and where the advancement of technology is frozen at the level it hit in the late 19th century. As her parents and grandfather close in on the right formula for the serum, the authorities show up, angry about the unsanctioned practice of science.
So begins a whirlwind chase that carries on through the rest of the film, give or take a 10-year time jump from 1931 (when April is a child) to 1941 (when she is a young adult).
Torn from the pages of a graphic novel by Jacques Tardi, the extraordinary world of April and the Extraordinary World is its chief asset. The film, from directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci, gallivants about an alternate Paris, where cable cars take 82 hours to groan their way toward Berlin, and houses can sprout legs and transform into submarines at a moment's notice.
The visual design is spare but hugely imaginative, offering the loving touch of hand-drawn animation and the technical precision of computer animation, often within the same frame.
But the movie's script (by Ekinci and Benjamin Legrand) barely pauses to take any of this in, as April and Darwin (to say nothing of Julius, a young male hanger-on she acquires) race to escape capture by those who long to use her as a way to track down her elusive family members, or as a way to get their hands on that serum, which has yet to be perfected but remains an impressive dream.
April is a vivid reminder of the limited scope of most US comic book movies
April reminds us that for as limited of a palette as big studios let comic book films have — generally the bright, poppy tones of Marvel films or the shadowy grimness of DC — the art form itself offers lots of other ways to innovate.
While the film is built around a young woman who's reconnecting with her legacy (without spoiling too much, April loses contact with her parents) and slowly falling in love, but it also boasts sentient animals and a hidden city where the great scientists of history (including Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and others) toil in secret. At all turns, April seems to be geeking out about all the cool shit it's come up with.
It's also unabashedly a movie that lets its young heroine be the most compelling, most important character onscreen — not an accessory in the stories of men, as happens in a certain other comic book movie now playing multiplexes around America. April is smart and funny and voiced by the great French actress Marion Cotillard (in the original French-language version, at least — there's an English dub as well). And she has a talking cat. What's not to love?
April just loves hanging out with its characters, and seems to share their enthusiasm for discovering the wildest corners of their wild, weird world, even though you'd think it would know just what was lurking in those corners.
There are times when it's a little bit too much, when the movie's breathlessness cuts against it, and you wish it would slow down for a moment or two. But it's hard to fault something that's so immensely inventive, something that's having so much fun just being itself. The movie doesn't feel weighed down by expectations, by trying to establish an entire April and the Extraordinary World franchise. It's just telling a fun story, and packing in as much exciting stuff as possible.
This will also remind you of the limited scope of most American animated films, too
April and the Extraordinary World is the latest triumph for the indie animation distributor GKIDS, which seems likely to earn its ninth Academy Award nomination for this film. (It's the most successful independent animation studio in history at the Oscars.) And while it's easy to talk about how April is so different from most American comic book movies, it's also different from most American animated movies.
After all, how often do animated movies made in the US offer so much outright action? How many conclude with laser gun battles? How many have a teen girl protagonist who's also a genius scientist — and then give her a mad scientist grandfather to spar with?
Watch too many big studio comic book and animated movies, and you can feel your horizons closing in around you. Watch this one, and you'll be reminded that both comics and animation are limited only by what some mad genius can dream up.
April and the Extraordinary World, alas, isn't in nearly as many theaters as that other comic book movie. Here's a way to find out if and when it's coming to your area.