I’m unfamiliar with the woks of Jacques Tardi which inspired the visual style of “April and the Extraordinary World,” but I have seen Hayao Miyazaki’s entire filmography, and it was Miyazaki’s works that I was constantly reminded of while watching this film. Here, in “April and the Extraordinary World,” we’ll find a number of similar elements to Miyazaki’s films; namely, and most obviously, the strong-willed female protagonist and the theme of humans versus nature.
Where “April and the Extraordinary World” begins to come in on its own, however, is in its setting. The film takes place in a steam-punk alternate universe where due to Napoleon III’s death, the Franco-Prussian War never happened. Instead, France went on to be ruled by Napoleon’s descendants who signed a peace treaty. Then, in the future, the famous scientists of the world begin to mysteriously disappear and so advances in technology such as film, television, radio, and the automobile, never happen. Humanity is forced to rely on coal which leads to a war being raged for the remaining energy resources left in the world. The few scientists that are around are plucked by the government and used for militaristic gains.
Enter the Franklins, a family of scientists who are attempting to recreate the “ultimate serum” their ancestor worked on but whose recipe was lost after accidentally being destroyed by Napoleon III, incidentally leading to both their deaths. Napoleon III wanted to use the serum in order to create super soldiers who would be invincible. The current government is unaware of the serum but still seek the Franklins out for their scientific prowess. The Franklins on the other hand, are not so much interested in the war as they are saving the world. They’re developing the ultimate serum in order to bring the planet’s wildlife back to life.
The set-up for the tragedy is a familiar one, however. We know the Franklins will be discovered, and of course, they are. The daughter of the family, April (Marion Cotillard), alongside the family’s talking cat, Darwin (Phillippe Katerine), are the only ones to escape. “April and the Extraordinary World” then jumps ahead by ten years, and we’re reintroduced to a new April. She’s now a young woman who survives by petty thievery. Living out inside a statue of a giant Napoleon, with the now dying Darwin, April spends her days by attempting to re-create the ultimate serum, all the meanwhile avoiding the government, who still search for her to this day.
As the plot unfolds, several things happen which wrench April from her life in hiding and consequently make “April and the Extraordinary World” an adventure film. While the setting is used uniquely, I found the plot to be a bit average. The story itself has surprises that take the film in ridiculously weird but fun places I didn’t expect it to go in, but the trajectory of the story itself never reaches that feeling of magical grandeur found in, by comparison once again, Miyazaki’s similarly bigger adventure films.
Although the war is being fought abroad—in the wilderness of Canada, to be specific—the presence of it is still felt at home, in Paris. Propaganda posters adorn the background, and police are constantly on the prowl for any scientists that may be in hiding. Furthermore, the steam-punk aspect of the film gives the world an aesthetic of grime. This isn’t the romanticized version of steam-punk you may find in novels or RPGs, but rather a world that’s presented as dying, in more ways than one; the planet is running out of useable resources, and the overreliance on coal has made the atmosphere toxic towards life. A few citizens can be seen wearing gas-masks, and through the film’s mis-en-scene, we also get hints at the presence of a class disparity. The majority of the citizens are wearing ragged clothes, and at one point in the film, we overhear a voice from a loudspeaker announce that it is illegal for “third-class citizens” to speak to “first-class” citizens.
To reflect that dystopic feeling, “April and the Extraordinary World” also features a drab color scheme. I’m not using the word “drab” as an insult towards the film in that it’s a fault; it’s an observational compliment. That drab color scheme of browns, greys, and other muted colors, help “April and the Extraordinary World” achieve that harsh atmosphere of a dystopia. The dying of nature, and of humanity—specifically, the working-class, who are barely able to make ends meet—is reflected in the film’s atmosphere brought about by all the filmic components discussed above.
There’s an extraordinary amount of small, subtle details in “April and the Extraordinary World” that add up to create a unique and compelling atmosphere. Coupled by the film’s visuals, which, while low on complex animation movement, is still beautiful, the universe of “April and the Extraordinary World” is brilliantly crafted. The narrative may not be anything special, and depending on how willing you are to suspend your disbelief, may come off as either stupidly absurd or absurdly fun. Animation’s strongest asset has always been its visuals however, and in that department, the direction of “April and the Extraordinary World” delivers in spades.