Directors: Jean-Loup Felicioli, Alain Gagnol
Voices of: Edouard Baer and Audrey Tautou (French version), Fred Armisen and Vincent D’Onofrio (English)
3 (out of 5) Globes
You could certainly make the animated French children’s fantasy-thriller “Phantom Boy” as a live-action film. But it wouldn’t be as charming. Brightly colored and deceptively light, it follows the adventures of Leo, a sickly preteen with a never-named disease that has left him bald. On his latest trip to the hospital, he discovers his spirit can leave his body. (Think of it as Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void” but for kids.) Leo winds up using his powers to aid Alex, a maverick cop out to take down a supervillain known as The Man with the Broken Face, so-called because his visage resembles a Cubist painting. A previous altercation with the baddie has left Alex confined to a wheelchair, but Leo offers to slink off to spy on their prey, feeding him intel and snooping around unawares.
With its flying kid who can pass through walls and dynamic action set pieces, this could have been — and could easily be remade as — a special effects extravaganza, though that version would be be top-heavy with digital junk. The latest from Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol (of the much inferior “A Cat in Paris”) is hand-drawn and affable, its characters and cityscapes abstract and doodly, not despairingly lifelike. The playful script, by Gagnol only, knows how to wring its premise for its full worth. Leo can only be away from his body for so long before he starts to evaporate, but the script, by Gagnol only, uses that arbitrary rule as inspiration to keep the film moving and never stale.
What would also be dropped for the hypothetical remake is its curious tone. “Phantom Boy” is charming and affable, but it’s also about a kid with a potentially fatal disease. (Definitely accidental is that the villain has Trumpian qualities, and not just because Trump is basically a real-life Bond villain. At one point he brays to a pesky journalist about a “very dishonest article” she wrote about him.) Death hangs over everything, from our bald-headed pint-sized hero to the nefarious plot to destroy New York City. But it has a touch that’s vaguely Lubitschian in the way it smoothly balances two contradictory tones. It’s so elegant it can throw in a groaning, couldn’t-resist sight gag reference to the most iconic image from Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” (in front of the wrong bridge, alas) and still quickly recover.