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Astral projection is hardly a common topic for children’s stories. But—minus the technicalities—it’s a rather perfect one. What kid wouldn’t want to watch a fantasy about the ability to leave your body and fly wherever you wish, especially if it involved helping to catch bad guys?
Phantom Boy is French animators’ Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s follow-up to their 2011 Oscar-nominated A Cat in Paris. Like Cat, Gagnol penned the script. Also like Cat, Phantom Boy involves cops and robbers. But this film is more fully fleshed, if only slightly so. Both movies are ultimately trifles that zip by at under 90 minutes, with less depth than your typical Pixar film. These directors simply don’t seem to believe in Walt Disney’s axiom that for every laugh, there should be a tear.
Not that there isn’t a sad aspect to the adventures of 11-year-old Leo (Marcus D’Angelo). The boy has cancer, and it’s only after he becomes ill that he learns that he can leave his body. He floats around New York City (a New York City in which everyone speaks French) and has fun sitting on the torch of the Statue of Liberty or spying on people, which is a lot more enjoyable than being stuck in a hospital bed. He can do it for only a certain amount of time, however; how Leo knows the rules of astral projection is unclear, but the helmers got it right.
Leo shares his secret with his little sister, Titi (uncredited), and eventually with Lt. Alex (Jared Padalecki), a police officer with the tendency to go rogue who’s stuck in the hospital after sustaining injuries chasing some thugs. There’s a Jigsaw-looking character (Jean-Pierre Marielle) who’s threatening to shut down the city—and proves that he can by turning off the lights for a while—unless the mayor gives him a billion dollars. Alex’s boss won’t listen to his wild intel. But with Leo’s out-of-body help, he’s able to navigate Mary (Audrey Tautou), a tenacious journalist and love interest, to help hunt the criminals down.
Phantom Boy is simply drawn—no computer images here—and frequently funny, whether it’s the bumbling cohorts of the villain or a couple of scenes that parody The Sopranos. (D’Angelo’s French-inflected pronunciation of “Bada Bing” is exquisite.) It’s aware of its cliches, making a joke when a VW bus won’t start in a heated situation. And its dialogue isn’t strictly kid-friendly, such as when Leo is narrating to Alex the events happening in another part of town and says, “Mole has just taken one hell of a punch.”
Leo’s illness is never pushed aside for convenience and there are heart-tugging moments, such as when he snoops on his worried parents or little sister, who likes to pretend. But the dominant mood is playful. And, just maybe, children who see the film will want to pick up a book (or more likely a tablet) to try to learn whether they also have the ability to help save the world.
Phantom Boy opens today at Landmark’s E Street Cinema