Almost every film made is a film about a character who has a problem that needs to be solved, and the audience are taken on a the journey with them as they try to solve that problem. These films can come in the form of Star Wars, where the greater good serves as the moral compass of the film, battling the evil that tries to take over; a Coen Brothers movie, where morals usually don’t exist and characters are simply trying to get what they want; or a film like Avril et le Monde Truqué (April and the Extraordinary World), a story that shows us an alternate version of a steampunk world, with April at the centre, learning and growing as each revelation about the society she lives in is revealed to her.
Studio Ghibli’s recent retirement from animation is still looming over every animation I watch. I thought no more Ghibli films meant no more hand-drawn, intricate portraits of unique worlds, no more subtle nuances of a character that most producers would find unnecessary, and no more quiet films. Avril et le Monde Truqué is a gentle reminder to the world of animation that this is not true.
Inspired by the style of cartoonist Jarcques Tardi, the alternate steampunk universe – that co-director Christian Desmares describes as ‘a retro-futurist adventure’ – it is easy to feel as though you are immediately part of this universe, and that’s because we see the majority of the film through Avril’s (April’s) eyes. The introduction of the film places audiences in 1870, just a day before the Franco-Prussian war. Avril’s great-grandfather, under the order of Emperor Napoleon III, is trying to create a serum that makes their soldiers invincible. However, the result – at the fault of Napoleon and his soldiers – is an explosion, causing them all to die. The colour palette here is dark and almost dystopian, with the blues and greens standing out as if they are illuminated, and the dystopian atmosphere foreshadowing what is to come. This time-frame ends with an iris transition to the next time-zone, where audiences are informed Einstein and Fermi have gone missing, resulting in no creation of electricity or other technological developments. So, society survives off of burning charcoal/wood, resulting in a war that lasts all the way to a now grown-up Avril in 1941. She is on her own, thinks her parents are dead, and only has a talking cat for company.
This sounds bleak, but thanks to the humour and lovingly drawn animation, this film feels just as comforting as a Studio Ghibli film. While France definitely doesn’t have two Eiffel Towers and trains certainly don’t transport through the air, Avril et le Monde Truqué feels at times as if it is a love letter to Paris. There is a focus on the good of humanity through the morally-confused Julius, a perpetual, unbreakable bond through Avril and her Murakami-style talking cat Darwin, and a parent-child bond that saves their lives and the world. Moreover, with what seems to be a reference to Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle in a scene where Avril’s grandfather’s home gets legs and arms, it is apparent directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci have good reference points, resulting in an animation that makes adults feel like they are genuinely on an adventure with Avril, seeing Paris and the world beneath as she sees it.
While Avril herself is concerned with the serum and helping humanity, – with meta and great missions and adventures – it is clear the film itself uses these great adventures to focus on the smaller, yet just as important, aspects of life, with the final scene of the film encapsulating its magic.