GKIDS latest prize-winning European acquisition is hardcore steampunk that doesn’t disappoint.
April and the Extraordinary World is based on a graphic novel by French cartoonist Tardi, and nobody does Heavy Metal-style sci-fi better than the French. April posits an alternate world where society never advanced beyond steam power thanks to an emperor’s death and the mysterious disappearance of the early 20th century’s top scientists, from Albert Einstein on, who in our real reality were responsible for much of modern science.
April is the daughter of an abducted husband/wife team of researchers trying to develop a longevity serum. So far their only success is giving her cat Darwin human intelligence and a sarcastic voice to match. On the run from a heavy-handed police detective, she tries to continue her parents’ work even as a second, shadowy group -- the one that abducted her parents -- is keeping its eye on her.
Alternate history stories (especially of the sci-fi variety) depend on how detailed and convincing their constructed world is, and April doesn’t disappoint, with non-stop imaginative visuals; if you think the Eiffel Tower is impressive, imagine a pair of side-by-side Towers that also happens to be the departure station for a luxury cable car transport that travels between European cities in a mere 82 hours.
Similar to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, in spite of society’s relative technological simplicity, the mysterious group has bizarro technology way beyond our real world (cyborg spy-rats, anyone?), never mind the world the film is set in. (There’s also a mobile house walking on mechanical legs that echoes the titular domicile of Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle.)
Add a foxy grandfather several steps in front of everyone else and a surprising pair of villains (with some serious relationship issues) behind the mysterious group, and you have a very cool alternative to the upcoming plethora of CGI animated features that all seem to be cut from the same template. (It impressed the Annecy animation festival’s judges enough to snag last year’s Best Animated Feature trophy.)
For those who prefer their movies sans subtitles but with a celebrity voice cast, the English language version substitutes Paul Giamatti, Tony Hale, Susan Sarandon and J.K. Simmons (fresh off his voice work as Zootopia’s Mayor Lionheart) for the original Gallic performers.
GKIDS has eight Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature; I wouldn’t bet against April and the Extraordinary World being its ninth. Sad to say the distributor has yet to take home the little golden man (Miyazaki’s Spirited Away was imported by GKIDS but released under the Disney umbrella) but they seem to have won a permanent slot in the category as the distributor of choice for ambitious, non-American-made full-length animation; not a bad consolation prize.