Movie magic is complicated alchemy. The hand-drawn French animation feature April and the Extraordinary World seems tailor made to have me on the floor, drooling. It’s a welcome reprieve from the flat, CG animation style that’s dominated nearly everything outside Studio Ghibli productions & stray stop-motion animations for the past couple decades. It stars a cool, fiercely independent female scientist & her sarcastic cat sidekick in its lead roles. It begins with an impressively ambitious alternate history sci-fi premise that sets the table for a grand, one-of-a-kind adventure. By all means I should’ve been over the moon with what the film delivers, but it never quite clicked for me. April and the Extraordinary World has all necessary ingredients to make movie magic, but there’s something noticeably off in the recipe.
Part of the problem might be that the movie throws so much of its narrative weight into its go-for-broke premise that there’s not much room left for genuine wonder after its opening exposition. Before we meet our scientist & feline heroes we’re steamrolled with a history lesson in an alternate timeline where famous scientists are abducted by a totalitarian French Empire of Napoleonic lineage and the resulting world is a steampunk’s wildest dream of coal-powered inventions & antiquated-yet-futuristic doohickies. There’s an awe-inspiring aspect to the film’s Future in the Past fantasy realm that recalls Miyazaki works like Howl’s Moving Castle, but never quite touch that master’s skill for emotional impact or his patience with luxuriating in the worlds he creates. The film somehow boils its vast, exciting plot into a generic chase film in which our two outsider heroes must protect a magical MacGuffin (a fix-all cure to death, aging, seemingly any illness) out of the hands of a malicious government & a mutated pair of failed experiments hellbent to destroying the planet. Once you strip it of a few quirks, the story is more or less interchangeable with that of any bloated superhero summer blockbuster of the past decade, which is a damn shame considering the massive potential of its launching point.
April and the Extraordinary World is a beautifully animated film, but I spent most of its runtime passively enjoying that visual treat without engaging with its emotional or narrative core. There are a couple ideas at play that make great use of its premise – only the older generation remembers a world with trees thanks to pollution & the world’s remaining scientists are forced into either hiding or weapons production – but for the most part it crams its extraordinary sci-fi ambition into an extra ordinary action chase plot. April and the Extraordinary World has all the necessary pieces to construct a gorgeous work of sheer wonder, but I found myself instead often wondering when it would finally be over. I hope its formula is more impactful for other people intrigued by the various charms of its individual building blocks, but I mostly zoned out on its emotionless proceedings & focused on the pretty lights & sounds. The movie is almost passable as pretty good, but it’s made of some fantastic material, an alchemist’s formula that should have produced pure gold.