This week, we will have a look of French animated films in 2015. It was a great year for France with 4 distinctive movies (these three along with April and the Extraordinary World, which I enjoyed) that could rival any year this decade. It’s interesting to look at the settings of these films as well as literally they are all over the place. April takes place in an alternative steampunk Paris, Long Way North is about Russian aristocrat on her journey to the North Pole, Phantom Boy takes place in whimsical New York and Adama is in a West African village. France has always been one of the leading markets in animation, and I’m glad that the country still intends to keep the art of hand-drawn animation alive and healthy. Merci.
Long Way North (2015)
Long Way North is an original film made on a limited budget in France, and yet it’s easy to draw a comparison between this and other Disney Princess films. It follows the same pattern, yet with French sensibilities, for all the better of it. The director Rémi Chayé says in an interview how the budget was tight to the point that “one character unnecessarily moves her shoulder” could mean they go over the budget. With that restricted budget, they only have enough resources to focus on key moments. It’s that approach that highlights one key quality from the film: its restraint. Void of any sentimentalism but there’s a strong sense of accomplishment at the end, Long Way North boasts one of the better role model heroines into the animation scene. Sasha is resilient, determined and she adapts extremely well with the harsh environment. In that sense she functions like those Disney princesses. But unlike the Disney counterparts, Long Way North accomplishes her quality through small moments. There are hardships when the ship gets into North Land, and there are internal conflicts that would sit comfortably in adult-oriented drama, so points to the film for not over-simplify these moments. And precisely because of these extremes, the ending where they overcome them is well-earned and emotional satisfying. Long Way North is also notable for removal of characters’ outlines, and that works well especially on the color palette front. The film also takes extra attention to the icebergs and how the ship deals with those, resulting in many breathtaking moments. In the end, Long Way North triumphs as it doesn’t shy away from the dark side of life, and the characters grow stronger precisely because of it.
(3 / 4)
Phantom Boy (2015)
From the creative team behind A Cat in Paris, Phantom Boy is another winning feature from the duo. Just like their debut, Phantom Boy is heavily influenced by the art style of classical painting and storytelling of Noir film. It has a fresh concept, in which a sick boy has a special ability to float outside his body and roams around New York city. As such, the film has a chance to be a thriller when his phantom floats around, and as a lowkey drama when his sick condition worsens. In addition, NYC settings serve as another character in this film. There is a large cast of characters and it can feel overwhelming as many plots merge into each other, but looking back I can say I have a good time with it. The chase-and-run is exciting, and the film oftentime feels light-hearted and whimsical (for example, when The Man With The Broken Face repeatedly fails to tell his story on how his face is broken) , in turns makes the stakes seem low. Even though it doesn’t all come together neatly in the third act, Phantom Boy feels fresh and personal and visually pleasing.
(3 / 4)
It’s not very often that we see a story set in African continent. Well, this decade offers a few (which will be featured in this column soon), but that’s not the only thing that makes Adama such a unique experience in the animation scene. First, it’s about war and while it might aim at children given the main character is 12 year old, the stark subject matter of war means that mature viewers will get more out of this picture. Second, it’s entire CGI but the visual is stunning with realistic characters model based on laser-scanned sculptures and watercolour-feel backgrounds, and more impressively, the splendid visual is in the service of the story and never overwhelms the narrative. Finally, the film has a hint supernatural twist that works as the local village’s age-old custom/ spell, hence despite people complaining about the ending, I found it thematically satisfying. In contrast, it’s the character writing that I am not too on board with. Main lead, Adama, has only one trait of finding his brother that makes him a one-dimensional character. In addition, the pacing suffers with uneven narrative beats and sometimes it’s hard to make sense what happens on-screen. In true coming-of-age journey, Adama makes new friends along the way as he travels to look for his brother. Adama sets out to find one brother, but in fact he comes back with many. Adama is flawed in narrative but it is technically impressive and is certainly ambitious. I wish more people could see it.