I’ve always been kind of intrigued by steampunk. The way the movement combines alternative history, fashion and art is so much fun. Unfortunately in the world of movies steampunk has fallen short with duds like Wild Wild West or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Most of the problem with these films is they are too much style over substance and they assume steampunk=bad campy writing. Well, April and the Extraordinary World is the first film I’ve seen that gets steampunk right giving us a true picture of what life would be like if things had never progressed beyond steam power.
I was able to see April and the Extraordinary World early because I am working with Salt Lake Film Society to sponsor a steampunk costume event for the premiere on April 29 (may change to May 6. More info to come as soon as I hear more). The films distributor GKIDS was kind enough to let me view the film and let me tell you guys- what a treat! If you can make it down to the Broadway (or theater near you) and see April and the Extraordinary World please support this fantastic animated film.
I won’t give too much away about the story but it starts out in an alternate history where Napoleon V is ruling France and since 1870 scientists have been disappearing (and hence their inventions are not invented). This keeps the world from moving past the age of steam and the trees are almost completely gone. Since 1870 a family called the Franklins have been studying a serum that has the power to regenerate life. The government is interested in the serum to make the ultimate invincible soldier but the family is resistant. While April is a little girl her parents are followed and eventually end up missing.
She is then forced to raise herself with her talking cat Darwin (another side effect of the serum is animals can talk). In 1941 she is a young woman who is doing her own research but the government has its eye on her.
One day trying to get supplies she meets a young man named Julius who is intrigued by her strange ways. They are a marriage of convenience at first but turn into good friends.
There is also a cop named Pizoni who is determined to capture the Franklin family if it’s the last thing he does, and April’s grandfather Pops who is sweet and nurturing as all grandpas should be.
On the April and the Extraordinary World wikipedia page it describes it as a “animated fantasy thriller film” and that is very true. The greatest aspect of this movie is it kept me guessing and that’s what you want in a thriller. It was intense, different and absorbing. Aside from one liar reveal trope, I had no idea where it was going or how it was going to turn out. I love when that happens at the movies!
The main conflict revolves around April trying to continue on the work of her parents while being hunted down and followed. Then when she discovers where they are it becomes more of a mystery (a huge part of steampunk). Along the way you get moving mansions, robots, coal and lots of steam.
Fortunately there are also breaks in the action for comic relief particularly from Darwin, the talking cat, who is hilarious. There is some slapstick with the cops and other characters that didn’t quite work as well but those are only a few moments I could tolerate. There’s also a nice heart to the film particularly with April’s sincerity and real responses when interacting with Pops, Julius or Darwin. This is a girl you feel for and are rooting for. There are also smaller plot points that have heart like what happens with April’s father. You really feel for April and can sense her loneliness and even despair.
The only aspect of the story I can see getting complaints is who the villain turns out to be. You’ll either go with it or think it is really strange. I went with it.
It almost goes without saying the animation based on Jacques Tardi’s graphic novel is outstanding. First of all, it is glorious to see such a well made 2D traditionally animated film, but it doesn’t coast on that. It is dark and cold but in a way that feels livable and real. The mixture of the sketchy characters with the black soot, white steam and red buildings stood out and was very unique. Something about it is gorgeous and haunting at the same time.
Honestly the entire film is completely different and tough to describe but that’s what makes it so good. It’s surprising and strange and I had no idea what was coming up next. I have a feeling it is one I will like more with each rewatch.
One reviewer described it as a mixture of Triplets of Belleville and Spirited Away and I can see what he means. It has European surrealist sensibilities with the oddities and strong female lead of a Miyazaki movie.
One of the coolest things about the film is the complexity of the characters. April is by no means a saint stealing repeatedly, Julius is a snitch, Mrs Franklin motivations are hard to pin down and even Darwin is a bit of a smart alleck. This makes them engaging to watch and unpredictable.
I saw the French version with subtitles but the American cast does includes Susan Sarandon, JK Simmons, Paul Giammatti and Tony Hale. I’ve heard they do a good job.
Whenever a film is this ambitious it isn’t going to be for everyone. Like I said, some people will think its strange, but I delighted in its oddness. And I like the way it will make kids think about their world in a new way. Fantasy worlds are great but here is an alternative version of their world. And it is not nearly as bleak or down-trodden as the barrage of dystopian films we’ve gotten of late.
The closest thing I can compare it to is Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. In fact, if your kids can handle the intensity and strangeness of that book they will be fine with April and the Extraordinary World.
This is definitely a film to seek out and support if you can. Let your theaters know you are interested in seeing it. The more support we give these 2D films the more likely they are to be made!
All in all, I loved it and can’t wait to see it again soon.
Overall Grade- A+ (it may be my new favorite of the year. Still debating).
If you get a chance to see it please put in the comments section. If not, does it sound interesting to you? What do you think of steampunk? I have a steampunk outfit ready to go for the premiere which was a lot of fun to put together!