For those who used to love such things, it’s been sad to watch the art of hand drawn animation die a slow death in the CGI age. Something tactile about process is irreplaceable by a digital sheen, and there’s a magic to the simple wonderment of watching drawings come to life. ‘Phantom Boy’ is the long-awaited follow-up to the Oscar-nominated ‘A Cat in Paris‘ by French filmmakers Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol. Their latest production is a bit more ambitious to the point of being convoluted, so it’s not quite as satisfying as their previous delightful romp. However, it’s a beautiful feature to watch unfurl on the big screen, and very much worth the trouble to find.
The movie is about a little boy named Leo, a ‘tween-age New Yorker who has been hospitalized for an unspecified illness. It’s a rough cross to bear, but it comes with an unexpected bonus: Leo can suddenly float out of his body and fly around the city for short bursts of time. During the boy’s nighttime ghostly adventures, Leo meets Alex, a good cop struggling to get over an on-the-job injury. The pair meet up while a masked gangster named The Man with the Broken Face is reigning terror all over the city. Alex decides to take advantage of Leo’s magical abilities to help him crack the case. Helping them both out is Mary, a driven journalist who tends to follow her crazy hunches into success and danger. In other words, it’s a crime movie and a bit of a fairy tale and an art movie and a little bit of family populism.
That’s quite a lot for one 84-minute animated feature to contain, and truthfully, that’s the movie’s biggest failing. As charming as it is to see Felicioli and Gagnol mix together so many genres and influences, they frequently get lost in a sprawling plot that’s swallowed by its own mystery like many unfortunate detective tales. Thankfully, that’s but a minor problem in an otherwise magical cinematic experience filled with humor and drama and adventure and anything else the filmmakers decide to throw at the screen in a given moment.
The art style the animators have chosen for this project is beautifully simple and exaggerated. Urban landscapes and human forms are contorted and the perspective distorted and exaggerated. It’s almost aggressively two-dimensional in design, but with gorgeous bursts of primary color and action sequences that stretch into vivid surrealism. You can easily get lost in the gorgeous imagery. While the characters deliberately fall into genre types, the characterizations are wonderfully eccentric. In particular, The Man with the Broken Face is as neurotic as he is deadly, with a hilarious running gag in which characters refuse to let him monologue whenever he attempts to reveal his origin story.
‘Phantom Boy’ is a beautiful animated feature well worth the trouble of tracking down (either in the original French with subtitles or the English dub featuring the likes of Vincent D’Onofrio and Fred Armisen). A mixture of heart, humor, adventure and visual poetry, the movie is a magically unpredictable experience. If that occasionally leads the filmmakers down a few dead ends, at least the story also feels completely devoid of the Robert McKee narrative/emotional calculation that plagues even Pixar these days. The film has a sense of imagination and freedom that should be infectious to audiences of all ages. The only real downside is knowing that it’ll be years before Felicioli and Gagnol will deliver their next project. Fortunately, the work and artistry that necessitates so much time between their films is clearly worth the wait.