Unapologetically original, decidedly strange, and crosshatched with wiry animations that slink, bob, and slither, directors Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli create a charcoal version of New York City that breathes Parisian sensibilities into the mouths, exhaust pipes, and window slats of a very American metropolis. “Phantom Boy” is a children’s film, foremost, but the French re-imagination of this bustling conurbation is one of neo-noir qualities and veiled allusions to internal, sometimes all too adult, struggles.
Our hero, Leo, an eleven-year-old boy suffering from a phantom illness, is sent to the hospital where he unwillingly molts his freedom, hair, and familial surroundings. There, by will or coincidence, he is able to leave his body: his soul moves through walls, flies through the night sky, and wanders without physical tethers. The caveat to this supernatural phenomena? Nobody can see his spiritual likeness. At the hospital, he befriends Alex, a congenial police officer who is coping with a broken leg – the accident just missed his femoral artery, the doctor says with great relief (a typical dramatic turn that is in almost every kids movie). Out of commission, Alex relies on both Leo and his beat reporter friend, Mary, to solve a case involving a villain that looks like Inspector Gadget as drawn by Picasso.
In the fashion of Netflix’s Bojack Horseman, our antagonist wears a venerable trench coat and private investigator hat that could have been stolen off the back of Vincent Adultman. His face, a discombobulation of jagged colors and shapes, resembles a bad game of Tetris. At his heels resides his mercurial dog, Rufus, a dubiously loyal mutt with the attitude of a tommy gun and the teeth of a great white shark. The animal is a perfect sidecar to our villain’s loopy plans to attack New York City by way of a computer virus (McAfee hasn’t been invented in this alternate universe). Our seething malefactor comically attempts, at every turn, to tell the origin of his disfigured face – it’s not particularly inspired, but it’s ridiculously funny all the same.
Although animations are a little crude – sometimes bulbous, sometimes flat and spindly – the disorienting aesthetics eventually fall into a calming rhythm. The story’s treatment of accessible themes – love, family, hope – are filtered through a spectral lens. There’s adventure, honorable heroes, quippy villains, and dastardly dogs – but also hospital walls and therapy sessions. Medication and the finite flame of mortality. “Phantom Boy” is a fun children’s movie, there is little doubt, but it’s also a tale of strength in the face of uncertainty. It’s also the first film I’ve seen since Nic Cage’s “Matchstick Men” that uses the expression “nosy parker” – there was some unabridged elation over that factoid. Opening this weekend at Ken Cinema, this is one of the best – and strangest – animated films of the year.