Avril et le monde truqué
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DIRECTED BY: Christian Desmares,
FEATURING THE VOICES OF: Marion Cotillard, Philippe Katerine, Marc-André Grondin, Jean Rochefort, Bouli Lanners (French); Angela Galuppo, Tony Hale, Tod Fennell, Tony Robinow, Paul Giamatti (English dub)
PLOT: In 1941, during the reign of French emperor Napoleon V, the world’s scientists have vanished, technology has not progressed for the past six decades, and the environment has been devastated by war, coal consumption, and rampant deforestation. The French Empire hunts the remaining scientists, hoping to enlist them to work on the government’s behalf. After April’s parents are kidnapped by a mysterious electric cloud, the precocious girl teams up with her grandfather, a petty thief with divided loyalties, and her talking cat Darwin to track them down, and possibly find a solution to all that ails the planet.
- Nominated for the César for Best Animated Feature; it lost to The Little Prince.
- The most literal translation of “truqué” in the film’s French title is “rigged” or “fake.” The film’s English subtitles translate the title as April and the Twisted World.
- An alternate history, the film’s point of divergence is the death of Napoleon III, who in our timeline lived to instigate the disastrous Franco-Prussian War. His prosecution of the war was such a failure that he was captured by the enemy, and his subsequent rule inspired fierce opposition, ending his hopes of founding a dynasty.
- Among the scientists whose disappearance has arrested the technological progress of this alternate world are Édouard Branly, Albert Einstein, Heinrich Hertz, Guglielmo Marconi, Alfred Nobel, Louis Pasteur, Enrico Fermi, and Sergei Korolev. Also, that may be penicillin discoverer Alexander Fleming giving a large sentient Komodo dragon a massage.
- The film’s drawing style is modeled after cartoonist Jacques Tardi, who is credited as the creator of the “graphic universe” and gets a shout-out in the credits under an image of a pterodactyl.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nothing can quite compare with the first sight of a pair of Eiffel Towers looming over the Paris skyline, eventually revealing themselves as the central station for a fire-powered continental tramway that looms over the coal-stained cityscape. The image is so iconic that it figures prominently in the story, captured in April’s beloved snowglobe and playing a role in the film’s climax.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Ambulatory meta-mansion, spore rocket
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The film’s individual elements—setting, story, design—are each slightly off-kilter on their own. But combined, they add up to a unified vision of strangeness. With each plot development, the film manages to elevate the already bizarre circumstances to even greater heights.
English-language trailer for April and the Extraordinary World
COMMENTS: Say the word “steampunk” and your first thoughts might stray to low-effort cosplay or mashed-up scenic design. Glue some gears to a top hat? Connect an old Remington typewriter to a cathode-ray television? Congratulations, you’re steampunk. More mainstream science fiction has sought to capitalize on the visual disconnect of old-style filigrees attached to incomprehensibly futuristic technology. Consider the Victorian stylings of the latter-day Doctor Who’s TARDIS console or the Gothic accents of Dark City. From literature to music to video games, the steampunk aesthetic is readily available.
It’s easy to forget that the original “steampunks” were inadvertent pioneers, attempting to picture an advanced future through the most advanced artistic lens available. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells stand as titans not in spite of their inability to predict such movements as International Style or Brutalism, but because of it. The rivet-studded Nautilus and the rococo time chair stand as exemplars of the form.
But here in our time, the style has taken on a somewhat surprising context. Rather than depicting a society where technology has outpaced design, steampunk has come to represent a universe in which the imagination has been arrested, with something essential left behind in our mad rush toward technological progress. Our aspirations and abilities have advanced just as much, but the aesthetics and the mechanisms froze decades ago.
So finally, we come to April and her extraordinary world. Far from being Luddites, the residents of this alternate Paris are downright eager to advance, but their ambitions far exceed their know-how, without even a fundamental understanding of electricity or internal combustion. That has led to a world on the brink of environmental catastrophe: trees have been hunted down to near extinction, the air is rancid with smoke and exhaust, and war to claim the forests of Canada is imminent. Some of that may carry a familiar echo. It’s leagues away from a coincidence.
And that’s the heart of April’s magic: where science fiction often uses the distance of the future to put our own issues into stark relief, steampunk permits this movie to invert the same trick by looking to the past. The twisted world of alternate 1941 plays equally well as a cautionary could-have-been tale as it does a still-could-be future. Rather than a fun thought experiment, the milieu serves a real purpose for once, allowing a nightmarish 80-years-ago universe to warn us about our own 80 years hence.
This all seems highly didactic, so it’s important to remember how much fun the film has inhabiting its premise. Alternate Paris is full of twists and quirks, from the street fair that presents basic chemistry experiments as inconceivable magic to the home that April has carved out for herself inside a colossal statue. From there, a remote-controlled rat leads us into a wilder world, including Pops’ spectacular bunker house, as well as the remote fort that houses the last bastion of French science. Finally, we reach the underground jungle outpost that houses the secret lair of two Komodo dragons who are covertly plotting to abandon the Earth in favor of (literally) greener pastures on other planets. April nobly expands its world and raises the stakes at every turn.
There’s a very grounded structure at the core of this movie. The familiar elements are there: adventure, romance, cutesy comic relief (I’m looking at you, Darwin). But the sheer scale of the setting and the degree of detail lavished upon the production lift it above the pedestrian. More than a gear glued onto a top hat, the trappings of steampunk ennoble and fortify the story, thereby earning the right to call itself “extraordinary.”
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“French animation is a force to be reckoned with, and never more so than in the strangely wonderful, wonderfully strange April and the Extraordinary World… Part science fiction cosmos, part alternate reality steampunk universe and all adventure all the time, the cosmos Tardi has visualized and screenwriters Ekinci and Benjamin Legrand have written is imaginative in a way that by intention is both familiar and out of this world.”–Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)
April and the Extraordinary World – Gkids Films – Featuring the trailer and links to stream or buy
IMDB LINK: April and the Extraordinary World (2015)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
“‘April and the Extraordinary World’: Behind Gkids’ Animated Adventure,” The Hollywood Reporter, April 1, 2016 – A short feature including quotes from the directors circa the initial release
TV Tropes – A catalog of the familiar elements to be found in the film
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction – the film’s entry in the laser-focused reference volume
April and the Extraordinary World | Magic Lantern Shows – A film student’s discussion of the film’s use of lighting, color, and camera work to convey its story
Into Film – A resource guide for young viewers (free, but account required)
LIST CANDIDATE: APRIL AND THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD (2015) – Gregory J. Smalley’s original List Candidate review
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adéle Blanc-Sec, Vol. 1 – An good starting point for someone interested in getting into the work of Jacques Tardi; this particular heroine made the leap to live-action in a film directed by Luc Besson
HOME VIDEO INFO:
Universal Home Video handles the physical media release here, putting out a Blu-ray/DVD combo (buy) and a solo DVD (buy) in 2016. Either choice includes a thirty-minute “making of” featurette and trailers for this and other GKids titles.
April and the Extraordinary World is also available for rental or purchase via video on demand (buy or rent).