Steampunk at its best: April and the Extraordinary World

A- Animated fantasy

Written by Franck Ekinci    and Benjamin Legrand, from the graphic novel by Jacques Tardi

Directed by Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci

This charming, French, animated alternative history takes place in Europe, 1941. But it’s not the 1941 we know. If you look quickly, you’ll get a glimpse of Adolf Hitler, drawing caricatures of passers-by on the streets of Berlin.

April and the Extraordinary World assumes that the history we know changed radically in 1870. One result of that change: Someone keeps kidnapping scientists. Therefore, the human race hasn’t harnessed electricity or oil. Civilization still runs on steam produced by burning coal.

That setting is an animator’s dream, and a 106-minute wallow into some of the best steampunk imagery I’ve seen in a long time. There’s a huge, hanging trolley that takes people in style from Paris to Berlin in “only 83 hours.” There’s a house that walks and swims. Public phones are big and bulky and you speak into a horn. There’s even a talking cat.

The talking cat isn’t steampunk, but he’s a big part of the story. Named Darwin, he’s the pet and only friend of the title character, April. She’s the daughter of a family of scientists, working in secret to help humanity. They have to work in secret because the government rounds up scientists and forces them to work for empire. But a mysterious force with technology way beyond steam keeps nabbing them first.

Darwin can talk because April’s mother gave him a serum that gave him that capability (and apparently human-level intelligence). As one would expect in an animated movie, the talking animal is the funniest and most loveable character.

April and the Extraordinary World is a family-friendly movie. The story moves along at a fast pace, with chases, simple suspense, conventional but fun characters, and some good sight gags. As is common with child-friendly foreign-language movies, it’s screening with and without English dubbing. (I saw the subtitled version.)

American youngsters will have to be old enough to read subtitles. The limited, 2D animation may turn off some kids who grew up only on Pixar. I hope not. Although the movements are limited, the actual design and drawing is complex and evocative. Older children should enjoy it.

April and the Extraordinary World places us in a world that didn’t happen (and realistically, could not have happened). The story may be commonplace, but the fantasy world it’s set in is exceptional.

Note: I altered this article a few hours after posting it to correct an error. In the early version, I had assumed that there would be no English dubbing.