One of the popular aesthetic movements in fiction is steampunk, a genre mash-up of Vernian science fiction and Victorian culture. In the field of speculative fiction, however, this is also one of the most lacklustre genres. Its conceptual premise always invokes more interest in how the world looks instead of the ideas and themes it may present. April and the Extraordinary World (or the more applicable title, April and the Twisted World) doesn’t just extrapolate the visual trademarks of steampunk, it lives and breathes the subgenre. The directors of the film, Christian Desmares, art coordinator of Persepolis, and Franck Ekinci, storyboard artist of the The Adventures of Tintin TV series, have created an homage to the early visions of pulp serials, all while evoking real-world issues like energy wars, increased militarism and weapons of mass destruction.
The steampunk subgenre is a popular one in literary fiction, but perhaps its most effective use, surprisingly, can be found in video games. Specifically in Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite, whose worlds are so detailed in political philosophy and historical nuance, we’re reminded of how elaborate a steampunk setting can be, and not only in visual design. April and the Extraordinary World constructs a steam-powered Paris in 1941, a metropolis where the Eiffel Tower suspends a transcontinental tramway, airships are a primary source of travel and the industrial revolution has become a perennial staple of cultural sustainability.
We follow the protagonist April and her talking cat Darwin, as she creates a serum which bestows those who consume it with healing regenerative abilities. She inherits this task from her parents, who supposedly died in a tram explosion while trying to escape authorities ten years earlier. April and the Extraordinary World is a ballsy political parable that dares not to take itself seriously, sometimes to the films detriment. It’s an immensely watchable film. The world is incredibly detailed; cranking metal and hissing steam breathe life into the picture, and the well-paced plot make for a wildly innovative chestnut of a film.
The film’s dramatic core is decentralized, perhaps in favour of its greater ideas, which is perfectly reasonable. April and the Extraordinary World is a flat-out comedy. Many of its ideas, however serious, are presented for laughs—particularly the reptilian antagonists of the film, who control a makeshift underworld (reminiscent of today’s Illuminati-based conspiracy theories). And while sometimes bits of comedy are distractingly nonsensical, the film preserves scenes of illustrated beauty, smart contemplation and clever humor. Some great moments in the film are just purely visual: a quadruped house walking the river floor of the Siene or menacing sentient clouds—emitting lightning bolts—chasing characters down cobblestone roadways.
The characters in the film aren’t terribly complex. April is a bare-bones reclusive tomboy archetype, her cat Darwin—not without his moments of dramatic brevity—is ideal fodder for running gags and Julian, a convicted thief hired to follow April, predictably becomes her love interest. The rest of the cast are mostly stock characters, or are not involved enough to be truly compelling characters. April and the Extraordinary, however, plays by its own rules and on its own terms, the deceivingly unremarkable characters work to the film’s advantage. Sometimes, outmoded storytelling and prototypical melodrama is all that’s needed in something as adventurous and time-honoured as these pulpy serials, particularly for a Vernian reimagining such as this.
In the end, April’s sophisticated animation and unabashed visual invention more than make up for its unwholesomeness as an emotional vision. The French animated feature is not only a rollicking tribute to classic Vernian adventure, it also works as astute science fiction, utilizing the tricks of the trade to produce a personally and politically involving film about social determination and scientific progress, and the power-hungry individuals who systematically exploit it.