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'April and the Extraordinary World': Fanciful and fantastic animated steampunk tale out of France

The animated French family film April and the Extraordinary World will have your imagination doing somersaults and cartwheels.

The animated French family film April and the Extraordinary World will have your imagination doing somersaults and cartwheels.

Adapted from the steampunk graphic novel by cartoonist and author Tardi, this exquisitely crafted, wondrously original treasure is set in an alternate universe where electricity was never invented and people have to power their lives with steam.

It's a version of 20th-century France where neither technology nor democracy ever took root and is the second film adaptation of Tardi's fanciful work. (Director Luc Besson made a winning live-action epic of his graphic novel series The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec.)

Set in the 1930s and 1940s, April and the Extraordinary World gives us a Paris filled with goofy-looking airships, chubby cable cars, televisions that run on charcoal, and cars with big, copper-colored chimneys that look as if they were made in 1905.

There has been no scientific innovation for more than 50 years because the world's greatest eggheads have all been abducted by an unknown power. Those who remain have been enlisted by the emperor Napoleon V to help win France's bloody energy war with Canada over the New World's coal mines and forests.

The story focuses on a decadelong quest by a teenage rebel scientist named April (Marion Cotillard) to find her abducted scientist parents. Things are looking dire: Her only friend, Darwin (Philippe Katerine), a talking cat who homeschooled April, is getting older and sicker every day.

The premise is wildly fantastical, even mad, yet the filmmakers create this crazy world with such awesome attention to detail, such conviction, and such emotional force that the movie draws you in right from its opening screen and holds you in its thrall.

It will delight kids while slyly subverting adults' assumptions about the inherent goodness of Western civilization. Before you know it, you realize you're watching a parable about allowing our fear of our neighbors to turn science into a tool for oppression rather than a creative force for good.

You can take or leave the political message. You don't need it to fall in love with April and the Extraordinary World and revel in its sheer beauty.

April and the Extraordinary World
Directed by Lee Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci. With Marion Cotillard, Philippe Katerine, Jean Rochefort, and Macha Grenon. Distributed by GKids. In French with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (action/peril including gunplay, some thematic elements, and rude humor).
Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse.