VOD Review: April and the Extraordinary World
While this animated steam-punk film pays lip service to interesting ideas, April and the Extraordinary World ends up feeling just plain ordinary.
Steam-punk is a tricky genre for me. It purports to use it’s aesthetic to tell alternate world stories, usually with a moral or political lesson attached. It also usually attempts to make science fun. While I applaud those goals, I usually find the execution of these movies lacking. Much like Star Wars, steam-punk tends to reside solidly in the Science Fantasy realm, using a combination of Rube Goldberg machines and pre-scientific nonsense to tell modern day fairy tales. Such is the case with April and the Extraordinary World, an animated tale from G-Kids.
April and the Extraordinary World (2015)
April (VO: Marion Cotillard) is the only daughter in a line of prestigious french scientists. Currently, science is a dangerous profession to embark upon. After a disastrous experiment in creating super soldiers for the Franco-Prussian war alters history, The French Empire is snatching up every scientist it can find to work on war efforts. Those that escape Napoleon have disappeared in a cloud of black smoke. This dearth of brilliant minds has put the world’s progress on hold, and as of the 1940 steam is still the standard method of generating power.
When her own parents are caught up with these competing kidnappers, April is left alone to carry on the family dream: a tonic that will provide immortality to those who drink it. Aided by her talking cat Darwin, April must make her way through this extraordinary world.
Through a Sooty Mirror, Darkly
The world-building in April and the Extraordinary World is solid, if you only look at the broad brushstrokes. Newspaper clippings and Radio Broadcasts set the stage of a world that took a left turn from ours right before the 20th century. The failure of France to make a super-army lead to an armistice which actually helped France retain supremacy on the European continent. The reliance on coal and wood for power has left Europe deforested, and the major conflict of the time is Europe trying to rob America of it’s natural resources. Both elements set up the flavor of the movie: French design aesthetics combine with 18th century materials to create a world of garish metal opulence.
IFLS (If Fantasy Looked Sciencey)
Once you look more closely, however, the blemishes begin to surface. Like most steam-punk, the alternate world ends up being both highly futuristic and wildly implausible. Every design is quite literally the least efficient way to do any given task. Every machine is over-designed and overwhelmingly superfluous: things have extra gears and levers because, well, that looks cool. While April and the Extraordinary World gives lip service to why that would be (any scientist worth a damn disappears one way or another), I find it hard to believe that 50 years of B-team progress would lead to every single contraption being a Hindenburg waiting to happen.
The non-engineering sciences also get this superficial treatment. April hoards books on chemistry, and her family is constantly spouting terms like reagent and compound and solvent, but at the end of the day they are practicing alchemy, not chemistry. It’s also hard to believe that a world that manages to make radios and telephones couldn’t work out electricity, even if Edison and Tesla went poof (especially since we see light-bulbs all over the place halfway through the film). The world of April and the Extraordinary World never immerses, because it plays at being plausible but is in actuality just a silly, magical fanstasy world.
While that conceit niggles me, it’s not a deal-breaker. Steam-punk has always been a form over function genre, and April and the Extraordinary world gets that. The contraptions are impressive, and the retro-European art style (think Tintin or Valerian and Laureline) blends well with the steam-punk trappings. It’s a nonsensical world, but it is pretty in it’s own uniquely garish way.
“Mr. Watson Come Here”
April and the Extraordinary World also suffers from wildly uneven voice acting. If I had to assign the lion’s share of the blame, it would go to whoever is handling the dubbing. In addition to the lines not matching the animation very well, the volume of the speakers constantly vary from too-soft-to-hear to way-too-loud. It once again breaks immersion when you can just imagine the actors in a sound-room delivering their lines as the dialogue unfolds.
Paint By Numbers Storytelling
All this could be forgiven if April and the Extraordinary World had a compelling story. It doesn’t. The backbone of the plot is “man will be the architect of his own destruction”; the solution to this problem is “therefore we’ll destroy mankind before it takes the whole planet with them”. We’ve had this story a million times since the invention of the atomic bomb, and I don’t believe this steam-punk rendition adds anything to it.
The subplot is about April opening up to others after the loss of her parents. The instrument of this story is her nagging “why don’t you just get married already” cat and Julius, a man that constantly wears her down, betrays her, then manages to land her anyway. It’s benign sexism: sure there are women in lead roles, but they need a man to be truly happy at the end of the day. Pass.
Better Served Elseworld
April and the Extraordinary World is stale and trite. It has old fashioned ideas about science, women, and human nature in general. Any of it’s good points are done better elsewhere, and all it’s faults have remedies in other films as well. You want a strong female lead in a story about humanity’s hubris? Watch Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. You want truly eye popping steam-punk? Watch Steamboy. You want high adventure based on a graphic novel (April and the Extraordinary World is an adaptation)? Watch the Rocketeer. Even The Ningyo did a better job making pseudoscience fun.
While the film did poorly at the box office, it is highly regarded on metacritic. Maybe I’m just too cynical and I’m missing the point. April and the Extraordinary World is available to stream on Netflix if you’d care to run a peer-review of my evaluation. Just bring an Erlenmeyer flask of the good stuff when you watch it. I think you’ll need it.