April and the Extraordinary World is an animated film from France. Its story falls into a relatively recent genre of alternative history fiction known as “steampunk.” In this case, a botched experiment by a late 19th century scientist changes the course of history. As all the important scientists in the world begin, inexplicably, to disappear, the advances in electronics and mechanics that were supposed to happen, never do, which means the world ends up stuck in the steam-powered era. Fast forward to the 1930s, when the groundbreaking work in chemistry of the scientist’s son and daughter-in-law runs afoul of the French police state. After the dust clears, the granddaughter, an aspiring chemist named April, is left alone to try to finish her parents’ work, with only the help of her talking cat, Darwin.
Yes, you heard me right. A talking cat. The film actually has an explanation for this, but does it really matter? This aspect alone, and the funny and charming way that it’s developed in the film, was enough to win me over.
The picture is directed by Franck Ekinci and Christian Desmares, and co-written with Ekinci by Benjamin Legrand, one of the minds behind the recent science fiction film Snowpiercer. The free-wheeling narrative and visual style is inspired by the popular and influential author of French graphic novels, Jacques Tardi.
Without giving anything else away, let me say that the picture is crammed with invention, including mysterious laboratories, a house doubling as a submarine, and surveillance performed by technically enhanced rodents. This might sound hilarious, but there’s a suitable mood of darkness throughout—this alternative reality, suffering from massive pollution and economic misery, is no utopia. The main character, April, voiced by Marion Cotillard, is a courageous nerd who brooks no nonsense. The plot involves lots of hair-raising chases and in-the-nick-of-time escapes, which got a little tiring for this grown-up, but I think intelligent kids between the ages of nine and fourteen should love it, if they’re willing to read subtitles.
In any case, the hand-drawn animation has a certain retro charm. I’m guessing that budget limitations necessitated the often static backgrounds, but the artists make up for it with the characterizations and the detailed gadgets. Best of all is Darwin the talking cat, used not for comic relief as you might expect, although he has a sense of humor, but as a genuine character with his own point of view.
The title April and the Extraordinary World is more literally translated by the film’s first subtitle as April and the Twisted World. Our young heroine, whose goal is not to find a boy but to become a scientist, is just the right person to untwist it.