Pretty much everything you need to know about the French animated film April and the Extraordinary World is present in the film’s original title: April and the Twisted World. There is a big difference between the words “extraordinary” and “twisted,” and the latter captures the vibe of this animated, steampunk, environmentalist film far more accurately.
Which isn’t to say that this film isn’t extraordinary – look at the descriptors in the preceding sentence, and name one other “animated, steampunk, environmentalist” French film that you’ve seen. (If you can, please stop reading, because I don’t even know if you’re real.) But “twisted” is a great choice for this film, which imagines a reality in which World War II turned out differently, our scientific knowledge was severely stilted, and there are nefarious beings capturing the world’s leading minds using lasers and lightning clouds. This is crazy stuff! Truly.
April and the Extraordinary World begins with an alternate history in which the Napoleon dynasty continues to reign over France for hundreds of years, and eventually scientists all around the world begin to disappear, severely stalling the world’s scientific progress. With a reliance on coal, there is an international energy crisis, and countless inventions – like electricity, television, typewriters, and so forth – are never actualized.
The world’s leading minds are in hiding so they aren’t forced to work for their governments, and so it goes that in 1931, the descendants of innovator Gustave Franklin are working on something called the “Ultimate Serum” that would make all forms of life invincible – meaning no old age and no death. But their research seems to be lost when the French investigators find them and destroy their lab, and the scientists’ young daughter April (voiced by Marion Cotillard) is left orphaned when her parents die in a freak lightning accident.
Ten years later, the film reconnects with April, who is still in hiding, stealing books on chemistry, and working on the Ultimate Serum her parents had devoted their lives to developing. “There’s more to life than chemistry; a new friend is what you should find,” says her talking cat, Darwin, but April isn’t going to give up – especially not since Darwin is dying.
It’s almost a shock, then, when Darwin ends up being cured – was it a serum that April was working on independently, or a sample that her parents had secretly left her? But April has bigger problems: she’s been tracked down both by the police and the mysterious group who has been disappearing scientists for years, and when she learns of the plans of both sides, it’s impossible to pick a winning side. Society seems doomed either way, unless April can make the serum and make a difference.
One of the strongest elements of April and the Extraordinary World is the simple animation style that highlight the steampunk elements at play, like a bicycle-powered zeppelin, rats and pigeons with spy goggles, a Ferris wheel where the seats are styled as hot-air balloons, and a plane that looks like two helicopters fused together. The creativity of those elements is out of control, but the film’s twists and turns tend to drag; the movie feels about 15 minutes too long, and a subplot entirely about the investigator trailing the Franklin family feels particularly superfluous.
But there is humor here (like when the bad guys tell April about her future in captivity, “Your diet will be strictly vegetarian”) and some interesting ideas about the role of science in society, both what it provides and what questions it raises. As much as April and the Extraordinary World veers around a little too often and gets too self-indulgent with its exposition, the film effectively builds a whole other steampunk-inspired world in which viewers can get lost, gas masks and all.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Guttenbergs