A Surprising Masterwork in Character-Driven Animation
Sometimes a film comes along and manages to dazzle so thoroughly that it really reminds its viewer of the magic and charm possible in the whole “motion picture” concept. For me A Monster in Paris is precisely such a piece. Despite oodles of hype associated with it since its initial release back in 2011 and fairly high expectations going in, I enjoyed every frame of the film and am left with renewed vigor for the unbelievably time consuming art of crafting quality CG.
A Monster in Paris is a 2011 French 3D animated musical adventure film directed by former DreamWorks director Bibo Bergeron based on a story he wrote. Coming in at 87-minutes in length and wearing an appropriate PG rating (for some action-heavy scenes and gunplay), the film moves along briskly atop a beautiful soundtrack featuring the vocal work of Sean Lennon.
The story, which has been criticized for its sheer oddity, tells of a small group of cohorts in Paris circa 1910, shy and insignificant Emile (Jay Harrington) and his pal Raoul (Adam Goldberg) who inadvertently create a gorgeous-voiced monster by messing around with a professor of botany’s litany of laboratory potions. Oblivious to the panic they’ve caused, reports begin surfacing of a monster terrorizing the citizens of Paris.
In time we discover that the monster isn’t quite the malevolent creature the media is portraying when he encounters stage performer Lucille (voiced by the absolutely luminous Vanessa Paradis). All the while the city commissioner, one Maynott (Danny Huston) sees opportunity to win over the public’s affection (and hopefully votes) by slaying the monster.
Sure it’s a bit unique from a traditionalist sense, the story is actually a lot less convoluted in its delivery than it sounds in summary. In fact, there are many small details integrated throughout that suggest mastery over the art of exposition (like one where the viewer actually witnesses the transformation and initial confusion through the eyes of the monster itself).
The animation and visual work, while nothing overly flashy or gimmicky, can be quite magnificent at times; particularly the soft hues and lighting that never allow the viewer to fully lose touch with the era of the piece.
The vocal cast is absolutely top notch; delivering performances that are spot-on for the emotions of the characters and as if their acting delivery weren’t solid enough, the musical numbers (something I typically despise in contemporary animated films) are brilliant. This could be one of few examples in the CG animated feature film segment where care in assembling a vocal ensemble went far beyond simply putting together a host of A-list celebrities in the hopes of their mere involvement boosting ticket sales.
The true heart of this tale is encapsulated in character interaction; beginning with the opposite mentalities of Emile and Raoul (which harkens back to some of the finer moments between Tulio and Miguel in prior Bibo Bergeron film The Road to El Dorado) and progressing to the interesting dynamic between Lucille and The Monster itself.
In the end, all of my acclaim for the piece is not without a few minor caveats. First, the film doesn’t particularly bend over backward in terms of cuteness, slapstick or other such gimmicks to hook younger audience members. Rather, most of the humor here is classy and dialog oriented. I personally am a fan of this approach, as an adult who has been forced to slog through countless mind-numbing animated films that keep youngsters entertained only through visual gags and cheap laughs. This one will appeal to adults first and foremost, with kids likely becoming bored about midway through. Though in all fairness there are charming elements like a sign-wielding monkey and a gadget-laden jalopy to break up the dialog-heavy sequences. It is very reminiscent of the type of sophistication in children’s storytelling common in the 1980s 2D era (think An American Tail or Secret of the Nimh) but with far quicker pacing sensibilities for this ADHD generation.
My second complaint comes in the fact that both the blu and DVD release of the film are as absolutely bare-bones as it gets: No behind the scenes, interviews, commentary tracks, nothing. There is a trailer, some setup options and the feature itself. If, like me, you usually enjoy exploring the personalities, inspirations and aspirations of the individuals behind the magic, be forewarned that very little exists of such things on the net and absolutely none on the disc.
All told, I thoroughly enjoyed A Monster in Paris despite fearing that a film about a signing monster bopping around turn-of-the-century France would never fall under my personal definition of cinematic brilliance. What I came away with, however, was an appreciation for all of the subtleties and abundant attention to detail that make this one a most worthy example of how effectively the CG animated medium can be used to tell a character-driven story.