Taking their old-school animated style across the Atlantic, directors Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli offer up a heartwarming New York story with Phantom Boy, their second feature collaboration following the 2010 Oscar-nominated A Cat in Paris.
Using a similar pared-down technique to tell the tale of an 11-year-old boy whose illness allows him to have super-duper out-of-body experiences, this simple yet moving French-language adventure should please young viewers not yet hooked on ADD-oriented cartoons, while adults can indulge in a bit of Big Apple fantasia. Screening in Toronto’s Kids section following a world premiere in Annecy, the film should see decent numbers in France when it’s released during the October school holidays, while overseas sales could be boosted by the filmmakers’ Academy cred.
Part crime caper, part childhood reverie, the screenplay follows the travails of Leo (Gaspard Gagnol), a harmless but curious tweenager who’s stuck in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy, with his hopeless parents standing by to await the results. At the same time, a criminal mastermind (Jean-Pierre Marielle) is holding the city ransom with a computer virus that could all but destroy it, taking revenge after a mysterious accident left him looking exactly like a Picasso painting, colors et al.
Drawing inspiration from film noir while indulging in a few NYC movie moments — including nods to Manhattan and The Sopranos — the scenario is lightweight in terms of plot, but powerful when it comes to chronicling Leo’s plight: Is he really a ghostlike hero, or is fighting crime a metaphor for battling a disease like cancer?
The directors ultimately leave the viewer to decide, having plenty of fun with genre scenes that include a badass cop (Edouard Baer) and feisty reporter (Audrey Tatou) trying to stop the villains, while cutting back to more somber moments between Leo and his family, yet without indulging in the usual tearjerking.
Whereas Cat was bathed in plenty of Art Deco nostalgia, Boy is more contemporary in terms of design, even if the 2D drawings of graphic creator Felicioli somewhat idealize the New York of today, while occasionally messing up some of the details (such as power outlets and a phone booth, the two of which were definitely made in France).
But that would be nitpicking for a film that offers up a meaningful alternative to mainstream animated fare, both in terms of content and form. Like other recent French cartoons — ranging from Persopolis to the Kirikou series — this one manages to maintain something personal within a broadly appealing framework: it doesn’t shy away from the dark side of life, and in the end, even allows us to enjoy it.
Production companies: Folimage, Lunanime, France 3 Cinema, Rhone-Alpes Cinema
Cast: Audrey Tautou, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Edouard Baer, Jackie Berroyer, Gaspard Gagnol
Directors: Alain Gagnol, Jean-Loup Felicioli
Screenwriter: Alain Gagnol
Producers: Jacques-Remy Girerd
Graphic creation: Jean-Loup Felicioli
Production designer: Jean-Loup Felicioli
Image director: Izu Troin
Editor: Herve Guichard
Composer: Serge Besset
International sales: Lumiere Publishing, Doc & Film International
No rating, 84 minutes