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Review: “April and the Extraordinary World” Blu-ray – Spectacular Steampunk Sci-Fi

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April and the Extraordinary WorldApril and the Extraordinary World (Avril et le monde truqué in the original French)is an absolute delight of a film: a beautifully animated steampunk science fiction adventure that draws on a deep well of visual inventiveness and a near-infinite capacity to surprise and delight. This French film is another international import from GKIDS and just released on Blu-ray, and ought to be mandatory viewing for anyone who is a fan of hand-drawn animation or who is decrying the slow loss of action-adventure animation. Or anyone with a pulse and the most vestigial sense of taste.

If nothing else, April and the Extraordinary World can lay claim to an expansive scope not normally seen in many animated films. The movie begins in the 1870’s on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, as Emperor Napoleon III pays a fateful visit to Gustave Franklin, a scientist tasked with finding a way to make the Emperor’s armies invincible. Unfortunately, Gustave’s efforts have only produced intelligence and the ability to speak in the animals he has tested it on. In expressing his displeasure, the Emperor triggers an accident that destroys the entire lab, along with everyone and (almost) everything in it. The war is averted and history changes, as the power struggle in Europe takes a different direction. Among the changes to the world are the mysterious disappearances of all the world’s top scientists, leaving the world’s technology stuck in the age of steam for decades, with wars for resources over coal, and then forests to turn to charcoal. Science must be practiced in secret, for fear of becoming another of the vanished or being forced into the employ of the Empire.

After this introduction, April and the Extraordinary World picks up again in 1931, as the Franklin family continues Gustave’s work in secret. Gustave’s son Prosper (a.k.a. “Pops”) is now a father to Paul (who is married to Annette) and grandfather to young April, all engaged in seeking the Ultimate Serum that will end sickness, old age, and death (though, so far, their only success has been in giving the family cat Darwin intelligence and the ability to talk). A bungled arrest leaves April alone, at which point the movie jumps ahead another 10 years to a now teenaged April in hiding and still trying to crack the code of the Ultimate Serum. But the disgraced police inspector Pizoni is still seeking the Franklins, and there are also the mysterious forces that are behind the vanished scientists to account for…

I dare not detail much more of the plot of April and the Extraordinary World; not much more can be revealed without spoilers, and the sense of discovery as the movie unfolds is one of its most enjoyable features. The movie certainly does not lack for ambition; I can think of few feature films willing to stretch a single story over four generations of the same family in an hour and forty-five minutes. That being said, April and the Extraordinary World manages to retain a light touch for most of the movie, keeping things from getting too bogged down or self-important through its natural sensibilities and from occasional, well-placed, and well-animated slapstick sequences. While the movie sticks to a more realistic style for much of its run time, it’s not above the occasional well-placed pratfall or comedically exaggerated squash-and-stretch. While we’re always aware of the high stakes in play, the movie never becomes as dour or as grim as the overly-polluted skies of Paris.

April and the Extraordinary WorldThe richly detailed world draws inspiration from the work of famed French cartoonist Jacques Tardi, especially his chronicles of the adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec in the early 20th century and the Jules Verne-inspired graphic novel The Arctic Maurauder (Le Démon des glaces); many reviews err in calling April an adaptation of a Tardi graphic novel, since the movie is based on an original story by Benjamin Legrand and co-director Franck Ekinci. We are treated to such sights as gigantic cable cars promising a trip from Paris to Berlin in “eighty-two hours of relative comfort,” bicycle-powered police airships, and a Paris whose skies seem permanently stained gray by soot and ash. The visual design of the world is easily one of the most awe-inspiring features of the movie, and would be worth the price of admission alone, but April and the Extraordinary World manages the twists and turns of the plot with so much ease and grace that it is easy to overlook some of the bigger stretches of plausible science, or the way Inspector Pizoni feels a little superfluous to the movie overall.

Ultimately anchoring the movie is the title character, who reminds me of Brave‘s Merida in her fiercely independent spirit and her character design that eschews traditional beauty. April can be quite prickly, as a young man named Julius learns when he is forced to throw his lot in with her, and it is one of the movie’s many achievements that April remains entirely sympathetic despite her often disagreeable demeanor. She is greatly assisted greatly by Darwin, who is a charming little scene-stealer, and with other members of the supporting cast (who, unfortunately, also can’t be revealed without essentially giving away the movie).

April and the Extraordinary WorldThe beautiful (mostly) hand-drawn animation of April and the Extraordinary World is exquisitely rendered in high-definition on the Blu-ray combo pack (which also includes a high-definition digital copy code that can be redeemed via iTunes or UltraViolet). GKIDS commissioned an excellent English dub track with several name-brand talents, with Susan Sarandon and J.K. Simmons turning in two of the best performances, but the Blu-ray includes both the original French soundtrack (in 5.1 DTS Digital Surround) and the English dub (in 5.1 DTS-HD master audio). April herself is voiced marvelously by Marion Cotillard in French (and is rightly the headliner in the cast), but Angela Galuppo acquits herself quite well in the English version; in both cases, the performance goes a long way in both defining April’s rougher edges and ensuring that they don’t make her too unlikable. Philippe Katerine in French and Tony Hale in English are both equally excellent as Darwin, imbuing the feline with his signature charm. John Rochefort is a delight as Pops in French, and is the only reason why I don’t praise Tony Robinow’s English performance more. The Blu-ray (and digital copy) include the theatrical trailer as a bonus feature along with a nicely thorough 30-minute documentary on the making of the film (presented in subtitled French). Tardi is interviewed along with many more crew members, and we are also treated to scenes of several acting sessions of the French cast in the studio. If nothing else, it is quite interesting to see how much CGI went into something that looks like a totally hand-drawn film.

I feel that most reviews of April and the Extraordinary World (including this one) sell the movie short, since the visual creativity is easily matched by the creativity in the storytelling and in the movie’s bizarre but grounded sense of place, much of which can’t be revealed without giving away too much of the plot. However, discovering this steampunk Paris is one of the movie’s most distinctive pleasures, although the movie also holds up to subsequent viewings. The movie’s achievements are all the more remarkable considering its reported production budget was a tenth of the average big studio American animated feature, but packs ten times the creativity into its running time. April and the Extraordinary World promises a journey that is definitely worth taking.

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Last pup of a dying planet, a young German Shepherd is rocketed to Earth, where he is bombarded by cosmic gamma rays emitted by a radioactive spider. Crash-landing in the forgotten land of Hubba Hubba, he is discovered by the Who-You-Callin'-Ancient One and his lovely wife Pookie. Instilled with their traditional American values, he spends his young adulthood roaming the globe, learning all the secrets of Comic-Fu. Donning battle armor fashioned from spilled chemicals splashed by lightning, he becomes the Sensational Shield of Sequential Art ACE THE BATHOUND! Look, it sounds a lot better than the truth. Born in Brooklyn, moved to Queens at 3 and then New Jersey at 10. Throughout high school, college, grad school, and gainful employment, two things have remained constant: 1) I am a colossal nerd, and 2) I have spent far too much time reading comics, and then reading and writing about them. Currently working as a financial programmer in New York City, while continuing to discover all the wonderful little surprises (and expenses) of owning your a home in the suburbs. Shares the above with a beautiful, wonderful, and incredibly understanding wife named Frances (who, thankfully, participates in most of my silly hobbies) and a large furry dog named Brownie (who, sadly, does not). Comics, toys, Apple Macintosh computers, video games, and eBay