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and Jean-Pierre Jeunet

In a waterlogged realm that never sees sunlight, monsters steal children’s dreams, and benevolent brutes assist maidens in distress. Evil in freakish form preys on innocence. Even Santa Claus cannot be trusted, as a boy learns when one nightmare Santa after another crawls out of his fireplace and invades his bedroom. Classic elements of fairy tale and myth recombine in The City of Lost Children, a post-industrial fantasy directed and scripted by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Simply assembling alchemical ingredients, however, does not amount to magic, and this film threatens to go up in a puff of smoke.

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Caro and Jeunet try desperately to establish City’s fairy-tale credentials. An imaginary world is crucial; accordingly, set designer Jean Rabasse creates the sort of twilit future wasteland favored by Terry Gilliam. Vacuum tubes, corroded hulks of riveted metal, and damp wooden docks coexist alongside rows of gauges, tanks for breeding test-tube babies, and an aquarium, bubbling with green fluid, that houses a talking brain named Irvin (voiced by Jean-Louis Trintignant). Irvin heads, as it were, a cast of oddities. City’s claustrophobic landscape is home to violent, sightless childnappers whose computerized monocles earn them the name “the Cyclops”; sinister Siamese-twin sisters, joined at the hip and known as “the Octopus”; and six tragicomic clones, all played with Robin Williamslike muggery by the rubbery-faced Dominique Pinon. On an offshore rig lives the greatest villain of them all: the cadaverous Krank, a mad scientist so out of touch with his childhood that he’s incapable of dreaming.

Krank devises a machine to transfer children’s dreams into his own mind and collects a nurseryful of toddlers to serve his nefarious purposes. His kidnapping scheme doesn’t faze City’s harbor town, though; concerned adults are scarce, and any child old enough to run away works as a pickpocket. The independent orphan is, of course, a fairy-tale staple, and the rules dictate that quick-witted kids eventually outwit venal adults. Still, even Dickensian brats need a parent figure, and he arrives in the form of a slow-witted strongman named One (Ron Perlman). One wants to rescue his adoptive “little brother” from Krank’s clutches, so he teams with 9-year-old waif Miette (Judith Vittet) to storm the dream-robber’s laboratory.

As One, Perlman looks the part of the circus superhero—though U.S. audiences may wonder whether it’s a coincidence that City’s sole American actor speaks broken French and plays a dumb but honest lout. A burgundy-tinted crewcut with a tuft of forelock lends him a cartoonish and unmenacing appearance, as does costumer Jean-Paul Gaultier’s turquoise-with-maroon-chest-band sweater. (Perlman bears a thick-featured, broad-shouldered resemblance to Gaultier, who is after all his own favorite model.) Later, the sweater comes in handy in a Labyrinth allusion where One ties a loose end of yarn to Miette and lets the designer garment unravel, exposing his pecs in their full glory.

Perlman, former star of the Beauty and the Beast TV series, also reprises his Beast role, with Miette as Beauty. Caro and Jeunet have read their Bruno Bettelheim, and Miette’s affection for One has decidedly erotic overtones. For his part, the noble One considers Miette his “little sister,” even when they sleep together under a burlap blanket or she asks loaded questions about whom he plans to marry. Yet the more-than-symbolic references to dawning sexuality will disturb audiences accustomed to reading about kiddie porn. And as if this friendship between a man and a child weren’t loaded enough, the filmmakers include an ugly situation that verges on rape: One, injected with poison, slaps and strangles Miette as if to remind her that she’s flirting with adult danger.

One’s momentary brutality exemplifies the filmmakers’ method of creating tension. Exaggerated violence or noise always sets the mood. In a throwback to the earlier Santa scene, Krank tries to ingratiate himself with his kidnappees by dressing as Father Christmas and lip-syncing a holiday song. The result proves him to be a Grinch without hope of rehabilitation. His mincing steps frighten the 2-year-olds, whose cries cause him to scream. His beard comes unglued in horrendous fashion; Pinon’s clone brothers, who cradle Christmas gifts hopefully in their arms, grimace painfully as the needle on Krank’s record skips from song to song. Viewers are left shaken, but more from the racket than the cinematography.

City represents a provocative effort, but it’s less than the sum of its bizarre parts. Too often, Caro and Jeunet substitute a carnival atmosphere for true creativity, cacophony for subtlety. Some special effects have potential: The Octopus twins, who speak in unison like the Three Weird Sisters, share a well-choreographed cooking scene where they stir-fry vegetables, their four arms cooperating perfectly; when one tastes a piece of zucchini, the other smacks her lips. In another lighthearted sight gag, Krank drops aspirin in Irvin’s tank to relieve the brain of migraines. And when Miette enters a boy’s dream to do battle with Krank, á la A Nightmare on Elm Street, the filmmakers include a smooth morphing sequence where the girl ages and Krank becomes an infant. Yet the frenetic attempts at modern mythmaking feel forced. The French are known for their fairy tales, but The City of Lost Children is no successor to the stories of La Fontaine or Perrault. CP