Okay. Try and follow along closely for this one because there’s a lot of exposition to get through. So much, in fact, that the film needed a lengthy voice-over prologue and two time jumps just to cover it all. The world of this movie is immense, complex, and absolutely bonkers.
Are you ready? Let’s get started.
April and the Extraordinary World takes place in a parallel universe where the Franco-Prussian War never happened. In this alternate history, Napoleon III commissioned a breed of invulnerable animal soldiers to fight in the upcoming war, but he died in a laboratory accident before the war could begin. A couple of lab specimens escape, and nobody ever sees or hears from them ever again.
In the following years, the world’s most brilliant minds begin disappearing. As a direct result, such quintessential inventions as radio, television, the light bulb… really, the whole modern concept of electricity goes completely undiscovered. So for the next several decades, Europe gets by on steam power.
As a direct result, the industrialized world burns through its coal reserves before chopping down virtually every tree on the continent. In turn, this means that the air quality has (just about literally) turned to shit and fuel is getting to be in short supply. There are still a few forests left somehow intact in North America, but going over to get those trees would mean declaring war. In preparation, the French government is desperately trying to round up any remaining scientists they can find to revitalize what’s left of the French war machine.
This brings us to the Franklin family, descended from the scientist who died working on those animal soldiers for Napoleon III. They’ve been continuing their forefather’s work in secret, covertly developing what they call the Ultimate Serum. Put simply, the Franklins have spent the past few generations working on the secret of invincibility. Once perfected, the Serum will cure any kind of injury or illness, in addition to warding off old age.
And just as the truant scientists finally seem to get the Serum working, the cops come to arrest them.
(Side note: Because I saw the English dub version of this film, that’s the version of the credits that I’ll be going with.)
Long story short (WAY too late!), the Franklins are separated. The patriarch (Pops, voiced by Tony Robinow) escapes police custody and flees to places unknown. His son and daughter-in-law (Paul and Annette, respectively voiced by Mark Camacho and Macha Grenon) disappear under highly mysterious circumstances that directly result in the death of several hundred people. As for the newly-orphaned young April Franklin (Angela Galuppo), she runs away to live out her life as a pickpocket on the streets.
(Side note: In the original French-language film, April was voiced by Marion Cotillard. No slight to Galuppo, who does a fantastic job, but I’m frankly rather disappointed that Cotillard didn’t come back for the English dub.)
I only recap all of this backstory because every single piece of it turns out to be essential. Even that bit about the escaped lab specimens. ESPECIALLY that bit about the escaped lab specimens. And what’s even crazier is that the story hasn’t even really started yet. Oh, no. The story doesn’t even really get started until a time jump to ten years later!
In the intervening years, April has been keeping up her family’s work on that Ultimate Serum. And now she has extra motivation, because her cat… oh, what’s that? I forgot to mention her cat? Yeah, well, April has a feline companion named Darwin. And he’s voiced by Tony Hale. Because thanks to a failed experiment, this cat can talk. Yeah.
Anyway, Darwin has been getting on in years by this point, and April is desperate to get him back to health. Unfortunately, every attempt so far has turned up negative. But then April discovers that while she and her parents were escaping the police ten years ago, the experimental batch of Serum they were working on back then was secretly left in her possession. This discovery (successfully tested on Darwin, so we know it’s the real deal) sets April off on a quest to find her missing family and discover what’s been going on with all the AWOL scientists.
Am I missing anything? Oh, yeah: Pizoni (voiced by Paul Giamatti). This comic relief character is such a disastrous combination of ego and blind stupidity that he could take any situation, turn it into a catastrophe, and blame it on someone else. So when Pizoni not only fails to capture the Franklins but also causes thousands of civilian deaths in the process, of course he blames the Franklins and spends ten years trying to chase them down.
To that end, he recruits a young thief named Julius (Tod Fennell) to help track down April and her missing grandfather. And of course Julius eventually becomes the love interest.
Oh, and we’ve also got J.K. Simmons and Susan Sarandon in the cast. I don’t dare talk about their characters any more than I have to, partly because there are too many spoilers involved and also because that would mean heaping on a whole ‘nother mountain of bananas.
It really sucks that the movie — particularly the first act — gets bogged down in so much convoluted insanity. It makes the first act a chore to sit through, and the third act suffers from a lot of clumsy exposition as well. But this is a double-edged sword because the world of this movie is one of its main attractions. So much thought and effort was put into every last detail of this innovative steampunk parallel world, and the results are simply captivating.
Then we have the animation, which makes the world look even more gorgeous. The movements are fluid and full of personality, the character designs look great, and the action scenes are all full of energy. The visuals are all so vibrant that it’s so easy to get lost in this world, and it’s so much fun to just sit back and enjoy the ride when there’s no awkward exposition to get in the way.
What’s more, while the plot may be clumsily structured, there’s no doubt that the writing is otherwise fine. The characters are all quite likeable, the comic relief is very effective, and there are some genuinely clever plot twists. And it naturally helps that the voice cast is spectacular across the board.
But then we have the thematic stuff. As a family picture about pacifism, the film works perfectly well. But as an ode to science… I dunno. Maybe it’s just me, but I personally think that if a movie is going to express the virtues and importance of science, the point might be better served if the science involved wasn’t so blatantly fake. I mean, it’s one thing for a film to incorporate future technology or tech that involves science well beyond our understanding. But when the technobabble is so clearly nonsense and the filmmakers don’t even try to pretend that any of the science is remotely plausible, doesn’t that show a kind of ignorance toward science that takes away from the point?
Moreover, it’s my understanding that steampunk is an aesthetic rooted in nostalgia. It’s all about the glamorization of past technology with its tactile pistons and gears, as opposed to the ethereal software of modern tech. So if a movie is about making a brighter future with technology, and it tries to do so with technology rooted firmly in the past, isn’t that counterproductive?
All told, April and the Extraordinary World works much better as a straightforward steampunk fairy tale. If you can get past the clunky first act, swallow all the exposition, and take the film on its own crazy terms, you’ll be in for a wild ride. It certainly helps that the characters are all perfectly charming in their writing and voice acting, and the superlative animation counts for a lot as well.
This film is the product of so much effort and creativity that it’s absolutely worth a recommendation. However flawed it may be, it was still a lot of fun to sit through. Just go in expecting a fantasy movie instead of a science fiction picture and that will go a long way.