One of France’s most beloved comics artists, Jacques Tardi last saw his work adapted for cinema in 2010, when director Luc Besson brought his famous heroine Adèle Blanc-Sec to the big screen. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec was a fairly big budget, live-action spin on Tardi’s trademark material — a blend of historical fantasy, farfetched adventures and elaborate mysteries.
With April and the Extraordinary World (there’s that word again), the second screen take on Tardi, there’s no less ambition and adventure, but the scale’s considerably downsized; namely because it’s a 2D animated adaptation where the big star names are behind a mic rather than front and centre (Marion Cotillard, Jean Rochefort and Olivier Gourmet are among the voices), and the look of the film keeps with Tardi’s art style, which is of the ‘”ligne claire” style pioneered by Hergé, the creator of The Adventures of Tintin.
The adaptations of Tintin are certainly a suitable point of comparison for April and the Extraordinary World, but there’s a dash of Hayao Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in its designs (and one shared Eiffel Tower-related visual with Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland), and the spirit of classic adventure serials in its storytelling. The steampunk story is pure Parisian pop, too. The bulk of it takes place in an alternate 1941 where much of mankind’s great innovations (such as aviation and electricity) have not been exposed, while leading scientists have gone missing over the previous few decades, partially due to an aversion of the Franco-Prussian War. In an opening prologue, we’re shown that one Napoleon III was dabbling with the laws of science long before Hitler, trying to procure an army of invincible soldiers. His hopes (and his life, in an alternate spin on the man’s demise) go up in smoke with a laboratory explosion, but test animals who gained the ability to speak manage to escape the same fate.
Descendants of the scientist who perished in the fire manage to at least get a knack for the whole talking animal element of the enterprise as they attempt to recreate the “ultimate serum,” with a hyper-articulate, talking cat named Darwin (Phillippe Katerine) providing a good portion of the film’s comic relief. He’s the main companion of the eponymous April (Cotillard), who becomes orphaned in 1931 when her scientist parents seemingly perish after the Paris-Berlin super cable car (one of the film’s great visual concepts) has an unfortunate run-in with a mysterious storm cloud.
Coal and charcoal remain the main sources of power over oil and electricity in the world April inherits, and a smoggy Paris is ruled over by a Napoleon descendant, with France at odds with American for access to Canada’s forests — see, kids, everyone wants to move to Canada even without Donald Trump around. She’s keen to maintain her parents’ legacy and finally crack the code for the serum they sought to produce, one concerned with invincibility. Run-ins with long-lost family members, vindictive authority figures and an infatuated street urchin see her and Darwin caught up in an adventure that’s not necessarily globe-trotting in terms of distance travelled, but one that offers an array of exciting locales, thanks to the extraordinary world-building (there’s that word again) that’s full of detail despite the animation’s deceptive simplicity.
Also exciting, for a film ostensibly aimed at a family audience, is a tendency towards the grey when it comes to morality, with the film’s ultimate villains offering sympathy alongside alarm when it comes to their grand doomsday scheme, while punches aren’t necessarily pulled when it comes to the actions of our heroes. The extraordinary world of April and the Extraordinary World is no simple one, and it’s welcome that its worldview veers away from the simplistic.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.