A French, Belgium and Canadian co-production, this animated sci-fi comedy is set in an alternative world where Napoleon III is killed when a scientific experiment goes wrong, and due to this the scientist responsible accidentally alters the course of history. Revealing why would give too much away, but because of his actions the greatest minds of our time mysteriously go missing, leading to a world reliant on outdated science.
After this short prelude we fast forward to 1931, in a society still set in the age of steam, with countries battling over the gradually declining fossil fuels of the era. The government of France are forcing all scientists to work for them, and it’s here we’re introduced to our principle leads, which include a young girl called Avril and her grandfather and parents who refuse to curtail to their government’s desires, and after an inventive chase scene involving bicycles with helium balloons and a huge train which flies through the air thanks to overhead rails, just before they are caught they mysteriously disappear, leaving Avril and her cat Darwin in the care of the state. Fortunately she escapes, and so her adventure begins. Ten years later, at least, when we’re in 1941, and Avril is a scientist herself, living alone inside a giant statue and desperately trying to replicate her parent’s experiment so that she can save the life of her cat. Who can talk, as it goes, thanks to her parents work. But secretive others also want the serum she’s attempting to create, and once again she’s soon on the run.
An adaption of a graphic novel by Jacques Tardi, who’s also responsible for Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec (Luc Besson’s film of which received mixed reviews, but I’m a big fan of it), the animation style is based on his art, which here reminds of a slightly more cartoonish version of Hergés Tin Tin. It’s an endearing and innovative work, with some of the backdrops truly stunning, especially once we leave the initially grey and grim world, full of smoke and smog, behind.
It’s the kind of film where people survive accidents which would normally maim them, or at the very least paralyse them for life, and much of the humour is derived from slapstick and word play, the latter of which often comes from Darwin the talking cat, delightfully portrayed by Philippe Katerine. The voice work in general deserves acclaim, Marion Cotillard provides sterling work as the voice of Avril, whilst Jean Rochefort is engaging throughout as her grandfather who is kind and thoughtful yet always heroic too.
It has something of a steampunk aesthetic, but don’t let that put you off if you’re exhausted of that look as it’s far more imaginative than that suggests. After all it’s a world where a cat can talk, and is smarter than the majority of the humans we meet, and there’s also a mechanical house which can turn in to a submarine, a jungle paradise which harbours a dark secret, whilst Alexander Fleming pops up massaging a sentient reptile, just to ensure events are always bizarre and unpredictable.
It had to be said that whilst quite funny this isn’t often a laugh out loud comedy action adventure, but it manages to be utterly charming throughout and has an ending that will warm the coldest of hearts. And those which are already warm may risk overheating, but it is worth the risk.