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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Monster in Paris: A movie review that took one year to write.

  A Monster in Paris is one of those movies that caught me completely by surprise.  A French animated movie that took an odd path to the shelves of American stores, it has already found an audience, despite the fact that is has been nearly impossible to see in the United States for over a year.  Not only was the movie difficult to view, but it had several other factors that should have kept me from seeing it.
  First of all, I am increasingly suspicious of most animated fare that gets stamped onto DVDs all across the shopping spectrum.  Even if an animated feature is given screen time at the local cineplex, I've learned that this hardly is any sort of barometric measurement of its worth, Horton Hears a Who being the last time my high hopes of enjoying a modern animated "classic" were dashed.  (And just as a side-note, please, please, please stop calling new movies classics!  No one can label something new a classic.  That is something only time can determine.)
  Secondly, I'll be up front about this, Bibo Bergeron's directing experience does not impress me.  He is the man who brought us The Road to El Dorado, and Shark Tale.  These looked so bad, I never sat down and watched them completely.  I stood in front of the screen, leaned on one foot then another as I tried to find anything worthwhile in them, almost sat down during Shark Tale, but that had more to do with how tired I was, then walked out of the room on both of them.  So I never really saw them.  And for all I know they were better than the few moments I gave them.  If I'm wrong about them, let me know.  The point is, however, that my knowledge of Bergeron's movies was both limited prejudiced against them.
  So how did I end up watching this new, modern, animated film from Bibo Bergeron?  Funny you should ask.  Let me tell you a little story.
  On the flight back from our two week trip to Paris, I was unable to sleep.  I'm six foot something or other and the seats were basically built for five footers who have no something or other to add to their dimensions. So as most of the people around me struggled to find that perfectly skewed position from which they could grab a little sleep, I played around with the small viewscreen that stared at me from the back of the seat in front of me.  It was a whiz-bang little device which allowed me to watch movies, see the nose of the plane as it flew through the black night, and play tic-tac-toe.  I opted to watch a movie, and tried a few that didn't really interest me.  Then I came across A Monster in Paris.
  This French movie could be viewed in its original French version with English subtitles.  Having just spent two weeks in the most wonderful city in the world, I was already missing it, and looking for anything that would ease the pain.  A cartoon set in Paris was good enough for me.  I would have watched French TV commercials.  Anything to see more of Paris.
  Okay, I'm rambling, I know.  Let's get to the review.
  This delightful movie has a number of themes mixed in that make this a great adventure for more than just children.  As a monster movie, it is much like the old Phantom of the Opera, with a dash of King Kong tossed in, as well as those old Universal Monster movies like The Invisible Man, or any other movie where science has run amok.  At the same time, there is a wonderful nostalgic feeling of the old Paris as it was recently showcased in Midnight in Paris, Hugo,  and Julie & Julia.  The animation backgrounds are flawless, extravagant, and capture the enduring spirit of the streets of Paris.  I can say this with great confidence, since we'd just been walking those streets the two weeks prior seeing this movie.
  The characters were just as well crafted.  We meet Raoul, a deliveryman/inventor whose suave, charming personality is a poor disguise for his excitable, low self-esteem.  He walks among the fashionable people of Paris wearing a fur coat that everyone thinks is made of hay.  Never mind that is really is made of hay, he denies this emphatically, all the time.  His best friend, besides his strange truck which he has named Catherine, is Emile, a shy movie projectionist who spends his days dreaming of slaying the dragon for the love of his life-- a woman he works with every day and is too afraid to ask for a date.  Emile is something like a cross between Bob Newhart and Woody Allen.  He's nervous, mumbles a lot, and comes off as the sort of guy you'd love to have as a friend.  His character reminded me of one that was actually played by Bob Newhart years ago: Bernard, the mouse hero from The Rescuers.  These two characters, both of whom could be seen as losers, keep a strong measure of dignity about them regardless of their weaknesses.  This is often something that is lacking in children's movies today.  The tendency is to make buffoons out of the leads, who fail to engender any empathy from the viewers.
Lucille examines her makeover of Francour
  Lucille is the heroine, and she walks yet another fine line that is often crossed by other animated films.  Come to think of it, this line is usually crossed by most films, animated or not.  The trend today is make the heroine a strong, feisty woman who is actually stronger, smarter, and more competent than the male leads.  Then we often get an absurd helping of excessive fighting skills tossed in for good measure.  I'm thinking of Kate Blanchette riding around in armor as Lady Marian in the 2010 Robin Hood, or Keira Knightley dashing about in the 2004 film King Arthur, with blue paint smeared all over her as she cuts Roman soldiers to pieces.  Those are extreme examples, but the basic spirit of these roles has taken root in many female roles since.  But in A Monster in Paris, Lucille, voiced by Vanessa Paradis in both the French and English versions, manages to be strong, intelligent, sweet, and a bit vulnerable all at the same time.  She even manages to be one part alluring and one part tom-boy at times, which is hard to pull off.
  Often movies like this fall apart when the villain is introduced.  He is often too silly, or too mean, or simply not interesting.  The villain here is Commissioner Maynott, who is wonderfully droll.  As expected from the villain, he is arrogant, though his own self-doubt shines through in odd moments.  It is something I've never seen before in a character like this.  The writers, animators, and the director have done a great job of making this work.  Watch for the scenes where this loud, commanding politician suddenly deflates, as the other characters in the scene seem to ignore him, or at least confuse him, and he stands with his hands at his side, at a loss for words, obviously unsure of himself.  It might easily be missed with all of the quick dialog and spectacular animation, but if you catch it, you might just find it as endearing as I did.  Maynott's inevitable descent into madness is certainly comedic, but I was able to sympathize with him a little with this added quirk to his personality.
  The star of the show, however, is the monster, a giant flea.  Francour, named for the passage in which he is found, dresses like the Phantom of the Opera, sings like an angel, and plays a mean jazz guitar.  He's pretty light on his feet as well.  Kids will love his chirps and trills, which make him adorable, and adults will love his trendy music.  (Sean Lennon's voice adds an ethereal quality to this overgrown Phantom Flea in the English version, though I thought the popular French singer -M- was a better fit in the original.)
  The humor is often quick, more often dry, and at times decidedly French.  But I don't want that to worry any Americans out there.  There is lots of slapstick and plenty of belly laughs.  What separates it from Hollywood is the lack of bathroom humor and cruelty.  All of the characters have a healthy dose of sincerity, which is so lacking in many Hollywood family films.
  The movie mixes its musical scenes into the narrative quite well, keeping the pace moving along even as it detours into a montage or two.  With Paris as the background, there is nothing dull or corny during these interludes.
  Having been won over by this impressive film, I watched it a second time on the AirFrance flight with Jennifer after she woke up.  She loved it as well, and we came home and raved about it to the kids.  The problem was, it wasn't available in the States then.  We kept looking for it, but there was no information on it.  Scores of people were on the movie's IMDB page, asking when it would be released in the US.  No one knew.  A DVD came out later in the year, but it was only made for Europeans, and the disk wouldn't work with our Region 1 machines.  There are ways to get around that but I am not that tech-savvy, so I had to wait until the film finally reached America properly.  It finally hit the stores yesterday, April the 16th.
  The Blue-Ray version is flawless, of course, though the original French version is not on it.  I was disappointed at that.  The English voice actors did a great job (standouts include Danny Huston as Maynott, Adam Goldberg as Raoul, and Bob Balaban as Maynott's assistant), but the French songs are far better in their original form.  My wife and I are pretty sure that one song was cut from the original, though there seems to be some question of this.  At any rate, we intend to purchase the original French soundtrack soon.
  So if you're looking for a great family film, and enjoy comedy and adventure in the midst of a beautiful city, be sure to check out A Monster in Paris.  It's an instant classic!  (Okay, I'm guilty.  I know.  So sue me.)
For those of you in the United States, the link on the left will take you to the English version.  For those of you in Europe, the link on the right will take you to the original film.

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