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Phantom Boy (2015)

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.
The plot concerns a boy named Leo, a good brother to his younger sister, Titi. They share his reading of tales of crime and adventure and she treasures their time together. However, Leo is sick, presumably some form of cancer, and is soon in the hospital. However, he has discovered that since getting sick he can leave his body in a phantom form. As Phantom Boy, he helps other patients in phantom form return to their bodies, as they are lost and disoriented. They never remember him when they awaken. But one does – Police Lieutenant Tanguy – who has just discovered where the criminal mastermind who is trying to take over New York City is headquartered. But in doing so, he broke his leg. Tanguy’s girlfriend, the reporter Mary, searches for the story on the criminal, but she needs some help. Phantom Boy offers to be Tanguy’s eyes and ears to help Mary bring down the criminal. When he is a phantom, his voice can be heard coming from his sleeping body and he can go anywhere and even go through things, so he can follow her and report back to Tanguy. Can they succeed, even as Leo’s health hangs directly in the balance?

It’s a fine narrative, filled with cops and crooks, underworld denizens and city officials of varying temperaments – like any noir or pulp story. Best of all, it has Phantom Boy. Before going into the film, all I heard was that Phantom Boy’s sickness was the most compelling part of the story. The scenes focused on his illness are well done, providing a thoughtful counterpoint to the criminal chase narrative. I feared the possibility of these scenes being overdone and tugging the heartstrings too directly. I’m pleased to say they got this right, with Leo’s illness being an important part of the story, but only as it relates to being part of his character: even though Leo is sick, it is not what defines him, and his ability to be Phantom Boy allows him to express himself fully.

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.

In the end, what is important is what should be important: Leo’s connection to his sister, Titi; the relationship of trust that develops between Phantom Boy and Tanguy; the love revealed between Mary and Tanguy; and most important of all, what a brave little boy has inside of him. The script saves the most fulfilling line of dialogue for the very last. Can there be more “Phantom Boy”? I would love for them to give it a try. This is a very entertaining film no matter your age. It’s a five-star instant classic.

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.