I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to see “Phantom Boy” the new 2D animation feature from the creators of “A Cat in Paris,” directors Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol. Gagnol also wrote the script. Like their earlier film, “Phantom Boy” is an animated noir, updating the Hollywood genre of dark crime drama into a similarly stylish but decidedly more fun animated film. In the new film, the creators have added what I see as a Pulp sensibility, with more heroism and larger-than-life action than the earlier effort. With these elements, “Phantom Boy” is a huge amount of fun, but also manages to be emotional and surprising.
And Phantom Boy is really cool, gliding through the air, as well as through walls, slipping in and out of his body. With his floating cap, a signature costume piece, he becomes a superhero along the lines of the old pulp heroes more than today’s caped heroes. The film evokes an older era perfectly with stylized graphics: the opening and closing credits echo Bond film credits, as well as the opening animated graphics from various sixties films, including some of the Hitchcock film graphics. New York City is lit up like a classic Hollywood metropolis, noticed even more when the criminal mastermind shuts off the lights. As a viewer, I thought, “hey, that city looked really amazing now that I can’t see it anymore!” – a tribute to the unified designs tying the entire film together. The score by Serge Besset is another welcome addition.
Phantom Boy has good company though, as the other characters have enough depth to carry their parts. Tanguy is the big-hearted detective, interesting here because he has to do his work from a wheelchair in the hospital. So it is the confident and capable Mary that takes over (voiced by the always wonderful Audrey Tautou). With Phantom Boy’s hidden assistance, Mary proves gutsy enough to handle whatever comes her way. The noir-ish elements get turned up a notch in the criminal element: the mastermind whose appearance is pure cubism; the Giant, a thug who enjoys punching whatever he can; the other thug, who plays the common though necessary fool role; and even the dog, a feisty little critter who gives as much as he gets. There is a fair bit of violence here, but mostly cartoon violence in the tradition of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner. In “A Cat in Paris” I recall finding the villain a bit wearisome; here, though not overly compelling, they fill the role better with more than enough good lines to get them through onscreen. The writer Gagnol realizes that in such a story, the villains are not what really matters: as the Mastermind repeatedly tries to tell his tragic story, no one wants to hear it. The script is fun and engaging throughout, with many fine comedic touches based on timing and content, not body humor and gross-out.
Two additional notes: I saw “Phantom Boy” in Chicago as part of the Gene Siskel European Union Film Festival. The screening was sponsored by the Lycée Français de Chicago and is worth noting that a ten-year old student of the Lycée introduced the film. At one point she said, and I paraphrase, “It is worth remembering that film is an art, not just an entertainment.” And it was really wonderful to hear her say this, because, especially for an animated film, the art is obvious, but is often the kind of obvious that is so obvious we don’t always recognize it. Animation transforms our world in ways that allow us all, no matter our age, to transform our own character, perhaps become our own Phantom Boys and Girls, while we watch.
And, as another film distributed by GKIDS, it was fun to see them enjoying themselves a bit, if their logo at the beginning of the film is an indicator: when the Phantom GKIDS logo rises out of the regular logo, I smiled and knew a fine film was on its way. Hopefully GKIDS brings us these films for many years to come.In current distribution through GKIDS.