Over the course of the past 4 decades, the rise of the comic book superhero adaptation has taken a foothold in cinema. Thanks to directors such as Richard Donner, Tim Burton, Sam Raimi, Alex Proyas, Lloyd Kaufman, Joel Schumacher, Warren Beatty, Guillermo del Toro, M. Night Shyamalan and Christopher Nolan, there have been many different takes on the superhero concept, some being incredibly successful and acclaimed, and some being complete failures on all accounts. In 2008, the same year The Dark Knight was released, Marvel kick-started a franchise of films that would be part of a cinematic universe. Whilst these films have been financially successful and well received, the sheer quantity of them has created an oversaturation of superhero films, with many critics criticising them for being overly formulaic, too safe, lacking memorable villains or dull soundtracks. Another problem with the whole cinematic universe idea is that having to catch up with 13 other interconnected films to understand a relatively straight forward story about guys in tights and spandex may not be sustainable for newcomers.
While a few comic book adaptations that go of the beat and path have been made recently, with films such as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010), Super (2010), Dredd (2012), Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015) and Deadpool (2016) all gaining a lot of attention, the medium of animation has also had its fair share of well crafted and executed explorations of the genre.
Titles such as Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), The Incredibles (2004) and Big Hero 6 have received acclaimed for taking the clichés and tropes of the genre, and either spinning them on their head or using the power of animation to create unique stories not possible in live action.
At the Toronto International Film Festival on September 12, 2015, (2010), the French-Belgium animated film, Phantom Boy had its worldwide premiere. This is the second directorial collaboration titled between Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, the duo who previously worked on the Oscar nominated A Cat in Paris, and was produced by Folimage, Lunanime and France 3 Cinema.
The film follows an 11-year old named Leo, who is suffering from cancer and is trying to recover in hospital, while being visited by his loving family and young sister, Titi. Leo lets her in on a secret, giving her a reason to keep her chin up. As a result of tiredness, due to chemotherapy, whilst Leo is unconscious, gains the ability to escape his body, allowing him to traverse New York City and keep watch of his family.
Meanwhile, a cop named Alex Tanner, has been making the headlines due to preventing burglaries, has been demoted by his boss to guard the downtown docks. Whilst on guard duty on a rainy night, a criminal kingpin known as Broken Face tries to get in contact with the mayor, when suddenly a computer virus causes a blackout across the city, resulting car crashes and affects the dock lamps. After getting in a fight with gangsters, Alex requests backup and spots Broken Face. While chasing him around the docks, Broken Face drops a shipping crate on Alex, resulting in a broken leg, being bound in a wheel and is forced to stay in the hospital and recover. With the investigation work now falling on Mary (Audrey Tautou), Leo and Alex now have to team up together in order to stop Broken Face from taking over the city, before its too late.
Phantom Boy combines elements of film noir mystery, super hero origin myth and family drama to create a film that really stands out, especially in an era where everything nowadays is either a needless reboot or pointless spin-off.
The character’s work of each other very well, with Leo being a sincere and caring kid who just wants to help others in desperate times, Alex being a cocky yet humble cop and Mary actually being a surprisingly capable detective. As a villain, Broken Face not only works as an obstacle against the protagonists, but provides a lot of nice humour that often pokes fun at overblown backstories and conventions in comic book films. The tone and the story reminded me of a mix between the pulp detective comic series Dick Tracy and the animated series, Danny Phantom.
If there was anything with the story negative to point, I do think that the film really should been at least 20 minutes longer, so that certain side characters could have had more of an impact, and so that one specific scene could have been better emotionally executed with some more visual storytelling.
Still, even with these issues, the story is fun to follow, with likeable characters, well executed humour and has encouraging messages that will resonate with both kids and adults.
One aspect of Phantom Boy that is certainly going to makes viewers intrigued is the animation and general artistic aesthetic. The hand drawn animation is for the most part, quite naturalistic and focuses on the small movements of the characters, with the odd comedic moment or out of body moment that add a touch of the surreal to the artistry. The sequences where Leo is flying around give of a nice sense of aviation that is akin to Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1989).
The character designs have simple outlines with flat shading that is very inspired various artists, such as Moebius, Richard Sala and even Taiyo Matsumoto. The faces are minimalist and have a distorted style, sometimes with feline-like eyes vertical in their heads, and simple lines for noses and mouths. Broken Face has colourful and disjointed quality that is like if Two Face was drawn from the imagination of Picasso. The character designs are a nice change of pace from the overly cutesy and welcoming designs of American animation, going for a rougher, yet more personal style.
Speaking of Picasso, his influence can be seen on the backgrounds, as they take on an impressionistic quality, that adds a dreamlike beauty to the city. New York City has been reused as a setting time and time again for many films, in the case of this film, every bustling street, grocery store, storage warehouse, parking lot, seaside dock and tall cityscape are genuinely luscious and easy on the eyes.
The lighting and cinematography is where some of the film noir influence can be found, starting with a title sequence certainly inspired by the work of Saul Bass, who worked on countless film posters and the title sequences for classics such as The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of Murder and Vertigo. It is often low-key, utilizing stark shadows, low camera angles and the urban setting can be compared to The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity and Chinatown. One aspect of shading that I thought was a nice touch is that the outlines of light showing on a character often have an effect that looks like they were drawn in by a crayon, leaving charcoal marks, adding to the hand crafted nature of the animation. The vehicles are done with CG, which the most part blends in well with the hand drawn animation, although can sometimes look out of place.
The simple yet nice character designs coupled with pleasing and surreal backgrounds and a uniquely artistic take on an of-overused setting gives the visuals a very pleasing, refreshing yet old school feel that adds to the film.
The sound design, headed by Loic Burchardt (A Cat in Paris) and mixed by Jean-Paul Hurier (Intouchables, Blue is the Warmest Colour), does a very solid job of getting the viewer immersed into the world. The sounds of footsteps, door slams, the rustling of clothes, rain, punches, objects being touched, glass shattering, gunfire and the wind blowing do a succinct job at matching the images without being distracting.
The French voice cast features actors such as newcomer Gaspard Gagnol as Leo, Edouard Baer (Chicken with Plums, Wild Grass) as Alex, Audrey Tautou (Amelie, The Da Vinci Code) as Mary and Jean-Pierre Marielle (Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Micmacs) as Broken Face, all giving in nice performances that makes the audience buy the characters. While it might be potentially quite incongruent seeing characters in an American setting speaking in Parisian dialect, the strength of the performances means you’ll get used to it after a few minutes.
The score by Serge Besset (A Cat in Paris) evokes the jazz noir soundtracks of Bernard Hermann, Anton Karas and a hint of Danny Elfman, with a nice mix of cello, strings, piano, chorus and bells that sells the film noir atmosphere, while also being heroic, mellow, dramatic and adventurous. Given most American superhero films to include music that is not meant to be noticed, and are often bland and forgettable, it is quite refreshing seeing a score done in a classic jazz style.
The current influx of super hero films since the last decade has made a lot of people bored of the same old formulas being milked over and over again. Fortunately, through the power of animation and a rich imagination, Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli have created a film that is a hodpodge of different styles and ideas effectively. Phantom Boy has likeable characters, a great visual style with a jazzy score, making the film a successful mix of genres that has an appeal to both younger and older audiences. If you are seeking a film that sticks out from the overdone superhero formulas, while providing a nice, heart-warming story, then this French animated out of body adventure might be what you’re looking for.
Phantom Boy is available on DVD by SODA Pictures, including both the original French Language track with English subtitles, and an English dub done by GKids, and a making of featurette. It is also streaming on Amazon Instant Video.