All the way from France comes another animated adventure. From Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli, the writer and director team behind the Oscar nominated A Cat in Paris comes Phantom Boy, a touching and comedic supernatural superhero mystery. They bring their trademark simple and appealing animation design, quirky characters and energetic plot.
Somewhere in New York City, a little boy named Leo (voiced by Alex Gagnol in French, Marcus D’Angelo in English) faces an uncertain future due to a severe illness. But while at the hospital, he learns he can exit his body and allow his spirit to flow across the city. At the same time, disfigured criminal mastermind The Face (Jean-Pierre Marielle in French, Vincent D’Onofrio in English) has hacked the whole city and demands a billion dollar ransom in 24 hours or he’ll shut down the city’s electricity. The only one who knows where he is Lieutenant Alex Tanguy (Edouard Baer in French, Jared Padalecki in English) who’s personal altercation with the Face and his goons left him in a wheelchair. Sharing the same hospital, Leo uses his powers to help Tanguy and reporter Mary (Audrey Tatou in French, Melissa Disney in English) find the Face and prevent his act of terror.
Despite the superhero element, Gagnol and Felicioli seem to draw more from classic detective capers. You have nearly every classic trope of the 1940s crime story, from the New York setting (albeit, set in present times) to the rogue cop. The most notable inspiration seems to be Dick Tracy, especially with the over the top villain. The Face certainly has every trait of a Dick Tracy villain, from the grotesque face to the bumbling idiot henchmen, one big (Joey Camen) and one small (Fred Armisen).
While paying homage to these tropes, the film also has a lot of fun at the expense of these traits. In an early scene, we see Tanguy take down a couple of bank robbers in a badass way. His heroic act is completely undermined when he accidently causes a gas leak, which blows up the supermarket. Before that, we see one of the robbers chastise another for firing his shotgun in the air, a classic habit in movies. The funniest comes from The Face. Throughout the film, he keeps insisting people will sympathize with him if they knew the “tragic” tale of why he looks like a human Picasso painting. But every time he tries to start the issue, something or another always interrupts him. He isn’t able to perform a ransom video without a henchman criticizing his performance.
But the film’s greatest strength has to do with Leo. The film captures a sense of wonder of a child playing a superhero. With his power, Leo is able to not only fly across the city, but also bring spirits back into their body. Seeing him soar across Broadway billboards and skyscrapers creates that same sense of awe felt seeing Falcor fly in the Never-ending Story. But the film takes it a step further to emphasize the tragedy of Leo’s situation. In spirit form, Leo gains some perspective of his life when he sees the emotions his family hides from him. When he follows his mom, he sees her breakdown and cry in private. He sees his parents worry about his fate. The most fascinating is Leo witnessing his little sister Titi pretend he’s still around reading her a bedtime story. Honestly, the film does it so well it makes the crime story feel weak by comparison.
I wish Phantom Boy focused more on Leo’s situation than on the crime, since its way more compelling an interesting. Here’s an example of a film supposed to be one thing but gets an element so perfectly it undermines the rest of it. Without Leo’s family struggles, it would still be a good movie, but with it, the rest of the film seems weak by comparison. Still, we do get a fast paced, comedic mystery with a little superhero and supernatural brought into it. The film has some wonderful, simple animation equally at home in Manhattan as it was in Paris. The characters are quite quirky, either lovable or hate able depending on the person. Better to have one great element with a many good parts than have no good parts at all.