How Spider-Man and Daredevil Inspired the New Animated Feature ‘Phantom Boy’

"The heroes invented by Stan Lee ... are like us. They are human and they suffer," says director Alain Gagnol.
Courtesy of Diaphana Distribution

You won't find Phantom Boy, the titular hero of the new animated film from GKIDS, anywhere in the Marvel Comics universe, but, says Alain Gagnol, who directed Phantom Boy along with Jean-Loup Felicioli, Marvel's very relatable heroes inspired their new movie.

A sort of animated film noir, Phantom Boy, which opens in New York today and will arrive in Los Angeles on July 22, tells of an 11-year-old boy, Leo, who is fighting illness and who also has a secret ability to turn into a ghostly apparition. The film follows Leo as he befriends Alex, a cop injured while attempting to capture a dangerous gangster who has taken control of New York's power supply. Leo, with his phantom power, and Alex, with his detective abilities, team up to save the city. A French production, its English-language version has a voice cast headed by Fred Armisen, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jared Padalecki, Marcus D'Angelo, Melissa Disney and Dana Snyder.

It's the second feature from Gagnol and Felicioli, whose debut film, A Cat in Paris, received a 2012 Oscar nomination for best animated feature (and is one of of eight animated features that GKIDS steered to best animated feature Academy Award nominations since 2008). And, says Gagnol of the movie's inspiration, “When I was a child what I immediately liked in the Marvel comics was the human aspect of the characters. You cannot identify with a woman or a man flying in space or lifting buildings. What interests us, as readers or as viewers, is that they live with other characters and what they are feeling.

“Spider-Man is obviously the very best example. Despite his powers, his life is like a melodrama: he’s an orphan, he has money problems, his girlfriend gets killed. The heroes invented by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, John Romita, Steve Ditko and many others are like us. They are human and they suffer, are happy, in love or depressed. In addition to Spider-Man, I also really like Daredevil. A blind hero who sees more than we do, that’s rather poetic as an idea, isn’t it?"

For its two directors, Phantom Boy is about courage. “Leo’s life is in danger both from an external threat, gangsters, and a disease which attacks him from within," Gagnol explains. "His struggles against both are equally fierce and unrelenting. And in both cases, he wins thanks to the help of someone else. Leo is not an all-powerful hero, he is a normal 11-year-old boy. And this makes his courage all the more admirable."

Gagnol adds that the filmmakers also wanted portraying a character with an illness in a different way — and that decision impacted the film: "They are usually portrayed in film in melodramas. This is especially true when it’s about a child. I wanted to portray a sick child in an action film, with suspense, with gags and with comic scenes. Leo’s illness plays a very important role in the story, but it does not define him as a human being. What is most important is his courage and his ability to struggle against adversity.

"I also liked the idea of portraying a character onscreen that we usually prefer not to see: a sick child. Screenings were held in hospitals and the children really liked seeing themselves onscreen in the role of hero and conqueror.”

The film was animated by hand, though the filmmakers also used computer animation to create crowds and city traffic. "This would have taken very long and been very hard to do by hand, due to their number and their small size within the frame," Gagnol says. "The cars and the pedestrians were created completely by computer, which allowed us to multiply them as many times as needed. This solution was possible because they are only details in the shots. They are a bit like decorative elements that move.

"This way, they do not break the graphic cohesiveness of the image. We always like to highlight the work the animators do by hand, which is more fragile, less perfect than what is done by computer, but much more sensitive."

Felicioli was behind the film's graphic production design — its city was drawn from photos, then recomposed, sometimes by moving a building or changing perspective completely often in a nod to classic New York cinematic moments and the perspective of comic books.

"Depending on the structural lines within the frame, he may have to remove a building in a corner or, on the contrary, add one. The realism counts less than the strength of the image," Gagnol says. "Places like Times Square or Central Park are obligatory passages when you set a film in New York. So that everyone can recognize them, those sets are less modified than other more anonymous places."

Phantom Boy was produced by Jacques-Remy Girerd and Annemie Degryse, and is a co-production between Folimage, Lunanime, France 3 Cinema and Rhone-Alpes Cinema. 

GKIDS' 2016 lineup also includes April and the Extraordinary World, another hand-drawn film, which was based on the work of graphic novelist Jacques Tardi and produced by Je Suis Bein Content, which opened this spring, and the recently-acquired Miss Hokusai, from Japan's Production I.G., which will debut in North America in October.