Derby Film Festival – April and the Extraordinary World – Review ***

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The romance of Paris translates to any medium. Edith Piaf’s ‘Sous le ciel de Paris’ takes us on a sonic journey through the streets of France’s great capital whilst in ‘A Moveable Feast’ Hemingway captured the deadbeat, nostalgic spirit of Paris from the artist’s point of view. In film, the City of Light has been immortalised countless times, traditionally in Amelie and more esoterically in La Jetee, whilst Parisian architecture has seeped into the public consciousness so thoroughly that it is immediately recognisable on screen or canvas. This new animated film from co-directors Christian Desmares and Frank Ekinci encapsulates and subsequently re-imagines Paris as we know it using just a smidgen of revisionist history. Who needs one iconic monument when you can have two?

April and the Extraordinary World begins during 1870 with a condensed alternate history in which Napoleon, on a visit to a scientist who has been tasked to create a super soldier serum, is killed in an accidental explosion. After his successor negotiates a peace treaty with Prussia, the next 60 years sees a rapid decrease in new technology due to the mysterious disappearances of numerous world-renowned scientists. Paris becomes a city propelled on steam and coal, an unwashed smudge in dire need of a saviour. Step forward April, a young woman whose scientist parents were kidnapped by the totalitarian French government, who spends her lonely days following in her parent’s footsteps and trying to create a cure for death and despair.

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As you can tell from that synopsis, this is high concept stuff, as it to be expected with something so firmly entrenched in the ‘steampunk’ genre, which uses alternate history to explore issues of science vs. nature and future vs. past. The plot, whilst tangled up in timelines, flashbacks and messy moralistic speeches, isn’t so convoluted to bore and will be ingested subjectively by both the younger audience that the illustrative, deceptively stunning, animation will attract or an older audience lured in by the promise of an adult adventure filled with escapades that they would have dreamed of at a younger age. This tonal competitiveness that rears its head throughout the film is where its pleasures lie but also its ultimate downfall.

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April, voiced with tenacity by Marion Cotillard, is a sad and lonely character that shines with the wish-fulfilment of a thousand equally lonely children, important yet normal, thrust into the role of saviour despite her instincts to be left alone. The boy’s own adventure style that has its origins in April…’s closest relative, The Adventures of Tintin, is lead carefully into the realm of science-fiction with April’s bourgeois talking cat Darwin and the fact that the primary villains are two mecha-armoured komodo dragons. Violence and death is spoken of and realised but never really focused on, and it is difficult to feel any true tension when there is such an explicit separation of audience accommodation instead of an intelligent blending and attentiveness to both young and old.

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Undoubtedly though, the animation will thrill anybody with a pulse. Although this world is dull and broken to its inhabitants, the animators and directors pull out all the stops to make it purr and respire for the audience. The characters, dwarfed by the beautiful and dangerous industrial landscapes, move like drawings leaking from the tip of a pencil and the colours are restrained, never gaudy, but carefully curated depending on the emotions or stakes during any given scene. Coupled with a delicate eye for framing, there are some simply gorgeous reflective moments that aren’t earned by the script but are championed by the visuals. The action wavers between Keaton-esque slapstick and heart pounding excitement and the fact every other scene seems to be some kind of chase scene should be repetitive but it never feels this way. For anyone looking for a similar atmosphere that Miyazaki can muster in his anime classics, April and the Extraordinary World is one of the most authentic titles of the year.

April and the Extraordinary World screened at QUAD during Derby Film Festival (in conjunction with Fantastique) on the 7th May 2016 ahead of a wider UK release this year. More information on the festival can be found here 

Steven Ryder is a Film and TV graduate and a quintessentially British lover of film in that he never really watches British films. Moderator of one of the internet's largest film discussion forums, TrueFilm, Steven is dedicated to lurching between trash and high art, often resulting in a cinematic whiplash of sorts.