A delightfully deranged steampunk adventure, “April and the Extraordinary World” successfully translates the comics and graphic novels of France’s Jacques Tardi to the screen. The latest import from US distribution outfit GKIDS, it’s further evidence that the old-fashioned art of animation is flourishing more creatively outside Hollywood than in it.
Tardi has been knocking out comic wonder-worlds for 50 years now, to huge audiences in Europe and a healthy cult here. His stories unfold as alternate-history action epics, drawn in the “clear-line” style of Herge’s “Tintin” but darker in design and theme. “April” isn’t based on an individual book but instead is an attempt by co-directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci — with graphic design input from Tardi himself — to stage a fresh story within the artist’s universe.
It’s suitable for grown-ups and older kids looking for heady, headlong entertainment. (Ages 8 and up, I’d say, but you know best.) A long prologue sets the stage for a fork in history’s road that leads to an alternate 20th century, one in which electricity and fossil fuels haven’t been discovered and all the scientists have mysteriously disappeared. Civilization runs on steam from burnt charcoal; the forests of Europe have been denuded and the 1941 France of Napoleon V is at war with America for Canada’s trees.
Against this backdrop, a young orphan girl named April (voiced by Marion Cotillard) carries on with experiments pioneered by her chemist parents and grandfather before they too disappeared. The mother was working on a “universal serum” that stops death and disease in its tracks; one of the test batches has resulted in the family cat, Darwin (Philippe Katerine), speaking his mind with wit and aplomb.
A comic buffoon of a cop, Pizoni (Bouli Lanners) is on the characters’ tails, along with a raffish pickpocket, Julius (Marc-André Grondin), who takes a liking to April (and she to him, though she won’t admit it). The pell-mell plot, though, is just the latticework on which to drape the film’s visuals, which are an ongoing astonishment that fuse the feel of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” with the tactile detail of early Hayao Miyazaki. (1984’s “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” seems a particular influence.)
“April and the Extraordinary World” features twin Eiffel Towers, a mammoth Paris-to-Berlin cable car, bicycle-powered zeppelins, radio-equipped spy pigeons, underwater fortresses, houses that become submarines, and other visual inventions that soar beyond cool into a sort of poetry with rivets. The emotional throughline is April herself, a dead-serious scientific explorer in a world that has learned to live without them.
On the page or up on the screen, the steampunk genre has a tendency toward clutter, and “April and the Extraordinary World” flags in the final half-hour when all the story lines converge into a tangle of overlapping action and characters. There are villains revealed and they’re almost too fanciful to take seriously, but by then you’re buckled in for the ride. When in doubt, a viewer can just sit back and swim in the frayed beauty of the images, such as a small, rickety airship crossing the moonlit sky above an empty sea. This is a movie for audiences who think they’ve seen it all, and by that I mean the young ones.
(Note: Since “April and the Extraordinary World” will be screening at the Kendall in both the French-language original and an English dub, check the schedule before you go. The English version was not available for review, but its voice cast includes Paul Giamatti, Susan Sarandon, and J.K. Simmons.)
APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD
Directed by Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci. Written by Ekinci and Benjamin Legrand, based on a graphic novel by Jacques Tardi. At Kendall Square. 107 minutes. PG (action/peril including gunplay, some thematic elements and rude humor). In French; screening in dubbed and subtitled versions (check theater listings).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.