Movie Review: April and the Extraordinary World
By David Means
In the spring of this year, our family went to see the animated movie April and the Extraordinary World (2016) when it played a limited run at the Tivoli. Although several American actors were listed as voices, the version we saw was the original French (“Avril et le Monde Truqué”) with English subtitles. The film was based on a graphic novel by Jacque Tardi, who also acted as graphic designer, and his style definitely comes through. I certainly remember him from the pages of Heavy Metal in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The movie is a steampunk/alternate history tale set mostly in and around Paris, and follows the fortunes of three generations of scientists. The first two generations are handled in two short vignettes, so they act more as prologues for the adventures of April, the third generation.
The first vignette opens in Paris in 1870. The Emperor, Napoleon III, and his bodyguard are paying a visit to a scientist’s lab. The scientist has been working on “the serum ultimate”, which is intended to render soldiers invincible. France is on the verge of war with Germany and the Emperor is desperate for an advantage. Unfortunately, the serum had a completely different and unexpected effect on the two test creatures. Enraged, the Emperor orders his bodyguard to destroy the lab. In the ensuing chaos the test creatures escape, and two liquids which should never mix, do, resulting in a large explosion. A few days later the new Emperor -- Napoleon IV -- signs a peace treaty with Germany, and the Franco-Prussian War never occurred. End of vignette one.
The second vignette takes place about forty years later. The late scientist’s daughter, Annette, is now married and has a daughter of her own: April, who appears to be about ten. Annette and her husband, Paul, are trying to continue the work of her father, but they must do so in hiding. The Empire wants all scientists to work for the military, but Paul and Annette do not want their research misused.
Complicating the situation is a mysterious entity that seeks out scientists of every discipline, and kidnaps them. All anyone sees is a small, dense, swirling black cloud swooping out of the sky, throwing off lightning bolts, which stun the scientist. The cloud envelopes the stunned body, then speeds away, and the scientist is never seen again. So anyone researching science must dodge both the Empire and the unknown force while they try to work.
The Empire has tracked down Annette and Paul, but they flee, taking April with them. Although they evade the police for a short time, the mysterious black cloud joins the chase, and their options soon run out. Paul’s father rescues April, but Annette and Paul are captured by the cloud. April and her grandfather escape and go into hiding. End of vignette two.
The story proper opens about twenty years later. With the disappearance of the world’s researchers, mankind has been deprived of their inventions. Without radio, electricity, aviation, and the internal combustion engine, the world is mired in outdated technology, dominated by steam power. Europe has been stripped of its forests to burn for fuel, and the European countries are eagerly eyeing the vast forests of Canada for more wood. (While watching I wondered why there was not more coal being used.)
April is now an adult and on her own. She survives by stealing what she needs, including science books. April has a secret hideout where she lives and attempts to carry on the family’s research. Her work is hampered due to the general lack of scientific and technological knowledge. Her only companion is her talking cat, Darwin, who was created by her parents to keep her company.
A mid-level gendarme of the Paris police -- who was involved in the attempt to arrest Paul and Annette years ago -- has spotted April, and has set a local pick-pocket to keep an eye on her, but not interfere with her thefts. The pick-pocket finally spies April’s hideout, and the ensuing attempt to arrest her sets off a chain of events that eventually leads to a reunion, a scientific breakthrough, and the explanation of the mysterious force that has been kidnapping scientists.
Our family liked the movie and would love to own our own copy, although it’s not your typical animated movie. I especially liked that there was a logical explanation for the steam-powered world. Marisa described the story as being ‘full’. She also felt the story went sort of Jonny Quest at one point, but said it did not detract from the movie overall.
There were at least two shout-outs to SF/F movies in April. One was a recreation of the ‘Moloch’ scene in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; and the other was seeing a broken Dalek in a pile of scrap.
The only other movies I have seen that are both hand-drawn and deal with the conflict between technological progress and maintaining nature are Steamboy (2005) and Princess Mononoke (1999). Although I prefer the animation style of Steamboy, I thought the story for April was deeper. Steamboy did not offer a real resolution to the dichotomy between nature and progress, and Princess Mononoke was full-tilt in favor of nature. April seemed to strike a balance between the two, although the epilogue (set in 1969) seemed to show a world remarkably similar to that of the 1969 that we knew.
The movie has a 98% positive score on Rotten Tomatoes from the critics, and the average audience rating is 80% positive. The movie is available on DVD as of August 2nd, 2016, but you can also stream the movie on Apple iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, and Sony Entertainment.