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Review: ‘Phantom Boy’

Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli, the writing and directing team behind ‘A Cat in Paris,’ do a lively job of assembling many familiar elements into a unique picture.

'Phantom Boy.' All images courtesy of GKIDS.

It’s strange sitting in a preview theater just off Times Square and watching the neighborhood outside on the screen in front of you -- even stranger when the neighborhood’s been transformed into accurately rendered yet stylized background drawings for an animated feature.

Phantom Boy is the new movie from Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli, the writing/directing team behind A Cat in Paris. Once again they’ve created a cartoon film noir crime story -- only this time with a mystical twist.

The film’s production notes reveal “Phantom Boy is deeply influenced by the directors’ love of comic books, particularly the golden age of Marvel in the 1960s, when characters became known as much for their human shortcomings as for their superpowers.”

Phantom Boy, aka Leo, is a twelve-year old with a secret, his secret being “I am a hero.” An unnamed disease (his bald head suggests chemotherapy which in turn suggests cancer) has somehow given him the Doctor Strange-like ability to leave his physical body behind and travel freely throughout New York City, flying about and passing through walls in spirit form. (In spite of their similar heroic names Leo is in all likelihood unrelated to Nickelodeon’s Danny Phantom.)

Leo uses his power to leave his hospital bed and lead the spirits of ill patients -- who are not even aware they’ve left their physical selves behind -- back to their bodies. (A little too long in astral form and their spirit will evaporate, leaving their body permanently comatose, a danger Leo courts throughout the film.)

Leo crosses paths with your typical go-it-alone, plays-by-his-own-rules police detective and Mary, a fearless but foolish Lois Lane-y reporter. They’re up against “The Face,” a villain sporting a Picasso-esque patchwork visage he’s eager to tell people how he acquired, and a yappy dog that seems to be a thorn in everyone’s side, good guys and bad guys alike.

The Face is high-tech savvy, and like Sherlock’s modern-day Moriarty or Bond’s Skyfall antagonist, able to tap into any computer system or video screen at will. He’ll unleash an unstoppable computer virus unless the city hands over a (pinky raised to mouth) billion-dollar ransom…oh, and did I mention he employs the requisite pair of bumbling moron minions? Or that the police chief flat-out refuses to believe his loose cannon detective has discovered the villain’s headquarters?

It sounds like a lot of familiar elements -- and they are, but once again it’s how you put the pieces together that make a film feel fresh or stale, and Phantom Boy has done a lively job of assembling them into a unique picture.

Leo becomes the go-between between the detective and the reporter. In one cleverly constructed scene, the ghostly Leo accompanies the unknowing Mary to a showdown with the bad guys, psychically sending a play-by-play to the detective who’s on the phone with her. Not realizing where the detective’s information is coming from, Mary attempts to bluff the baddies, leading to a showdown that’s both tense and funny.

There’s more humor in the minions’ disastrous attempt to record their boss’ ransom demand (with a “NOSY” brand video camera), leading him to complain “this isn’t a Spielberg movie!” or his demonstration of his virus’ deadly power—with 8-bit Pac Man-style animation.

The film’s eye-pleasing production design and art style is a real charmer -- its distinctive cast of characters rendered in solid outlines and flat colors harkens back to A Cat in Paris. Hitchcock buffs will quickly recognize the film’s credits as a loving homage to Bernard Herrmann’s music and Saul Bass’ title design for Psycho. The original French version was screened at the preview I attended, but GKids, the film’s distributor, has created an English-dubbed version featuring voicework from Portlandia’s Fred Armisen and Jared Padalecki (Supernatural); Vincent D’Onofrio, evidently specializing in criminal masterminds these days, takes a break from portraying The Kingpin in Netflix’s Daredevil series to voice The Face.

2D may be extinct in mainstream American animation, but it’s alive and more than well in the movies GKids keeps discovering and delivering to our shores -- eight of the company’s 2D imports have all been nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. Anyone care to give me odds Phantom Boy will be number nine?

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Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.