April And The Extraordinary World (Avril et le monde truqué)

France (2015) Dir. Christian Desmares & Franck Ekinci

When one thinks of Steampunk in animation it will probably occur to most people to suggest that it is the province of Japanese anime, albeit with the settings being in Europe. Leave it to the French to fly the flag for European Steampunk and to remind us why they are an underappreciated force in the medium of animated cinema.

The original French title is April And the Twisted World which is a little harsher than the translated version we Brits get, presumably to appeal to younger audiences. This might work on a superficial level but the story is based around the power of science and for some, this might be like a combined history-chemistry lesson in cartoon form.

It poses the interesting hypothesis of what the world would be like if the greatest scientific minds weren’t around to enrich our lives and our progress as human beings. How lacking would our growth be without their discoveries and inventions to lead the way forward?

Beginning in 1870 on the eve of the Franco-Prussian war, Emperor Napoleon III visits the lab of Gustave Franklin, who was working on super soldiers but had only managed half-baked experiments with animals. When two of them escape, chaos ensues and the lab explodes killing everyone inside. Napoleon IV takes over the next day, signs a truce with Prussia averting the war.

Over the next sixty years, eminent scientists like Einstein, Fleming, Fermi, etc. begin to disappear, resulting in their discoveries and technological advances not happening and the world’s energy still coming from coal then wood. While remaining French scientists are working for the government, the descendants of Franklin continue to work on perfecting his ultimate serum of invincibility.

The titular April is the great-granddaughter of Franklin, observing while her parents Paul and Annette and her grandfather – Franklin’s son – Prosper work away on their covert experiments. In 1931 April is just a child when the police, led by Inspector Pizoni, raids their lab and tries to arrest them all. With Prosper making his own getaway and her parents seemingly dead, all April has is her talking cat Darwin for company as she grows up in a children’s home.

In case you are wondering, Darwin can talk as the result of a failed attempt at perfecting the serum. He can also read and is quick witted to boot, but as we see later on when confronted by a technologically enhanced spy rat, he is still a cat by nature. The main portion of this tale takes place ten years after the family split, with April still working on the formula which she believes she has perfected when she inadvertently cures and ailing Darwin.

The general thrust of the story is to suggest that mankind makes some advances on the technological front but they are still rudimentary as they rely on old-fashioned sources of energy. Vehicles may look impressive enough with their outlandish metallic shells and robot-esque designs, but they remain slow and generally ponderous; a steam-powered cable car for instance boasts an 82-day trip to travel from Paris to London!    

In this world, things taken for granted like electricity, radio, motor engines and such don’t exists or at least only in a limited, nascent form. The reason for the mysterious disappearance is explained late in the second act and on the surface, looks whacky and offbeat but look beneath the visuals, and there is an interesting discourse on the testing of animals being shared here.

Conceptually this film takes as its basis the works of Jules Verne in terms of the scientific and mechanical aspects and the adventure aspect from similarly Verne influenced Steampunk anime such as Steamboy or Nadia: The Secret Of Blue Water. But the story, from co-director Franck Ekinci and Benjamin Legrand, has the luxury of hindsight to disguise its modern concerns and musings.

April may be the nominal heroine but she shares the spotlight with Darwin, who is arguably a standout character both comically and a personality, Prosper and the young man who saves her from trouble, Julius, who in fact is a petty criminal hired by Pizoni to keep tabs on April and lead him to Prosper. “Pops” as he is known, may be old but is active and sharp as a tack, certainly no burden role for him.

Physically April – voiced by Marion Cotillard – isn’t a glamorous leading lady either, with her short hair, big nose, boyish frame and headstrong manner, something even a dress can’t turn soften. Along with her superior scientific knowledge this puts her in a unique bracket of inspirational animated female characters, a far cry from unrealistic Disney princesses.

With science at the forefront of the tale the script is quite philosophical without being overbearing, saluting the past while looking forward to the future, whilst pondering what a world without progressive science would be like. It doesn’t paint a bleak or apocalyptic picture, but one with a lot less colour, energy and aspiration behind it.

But it also finds room for humour, largely courtesy of Darwin and the buffoon antics of Pizoni, and plenty of action is on hand too, all of which is presented in a fluid animation style that blends 2D and 3D technique seamlessly. The visual style is based on the work of French comic artist Tardi, who created Adèle Blanc-Sec. The artwork is rich in detail, while the Steampunk technology is every bit as imaginative as in an anime.

The original French title is more accurate in terms of representing the story but April And The Extraordinary World is equally apt as a Steampunk world is quite extraordinary. By virtue of it being animated it should appeal to younger audiences for that very reason. However it is adults, with their wider breadth of knowledge, who will get the most from this superb, intelligent slice of French animation.