By now, the family film genre has become a bit of a cinematic cliche. Either every effort is measured against Pixar’s presumed perfection, or cast off as commercial claptrap from studios which understand little beyond marketing and the elementary school zeitgeist. Walking somewhere in between both is the fun, flawed A Monster in Paris. Produced by the fresh-out-of-retirement Luc Besson and helmed by French animation director Bibo Bergeron (The Road to El Dorado, Shark Tale), this novel reconfiguration of The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame offers gorgeous design and a frenetic pace. But it also lacks heart, one thing many of the previously mentioned cartoonists excel at.
It’s 1910 and the Seine River has flooded its banks. Paris is underwater, which make life difficult for mousy film projectionist Emile (Jay Harrington) and his delivery man buddy Raoul (Adam Goldberg). The former has a thing for ticket girl Maud (Madeline Zima). The latter is in love — but won’t admit it — with stage sensation Lucille (Vanessa Paradis). One night, the guys accidentally mess things up in the lab of a local scientist. The chemical combination they unleash turns small seeds into huge sunflowers. It also turns a tiny flea into the giant title “terror.”
Miscategorized as a threat by the press, and the town’s power mad police commissioner Maynott (Danny Huston), the bug is befriended by Lucille, who discovers that it has a delicate manner and a beautiful singing voice. Hoping to protect him from the public, and the prying eyes of Inspector Pate (Bob Balaban), she enlists the help of Emile and Raoul to protect her unusual protégé.
There is so much to love about A Monster in Paris that when it starts to stumble, you feel a bit sad. Certainly, a 90 minute movie created with care by international artists would look amazing — and this movie does — but the script suffers from a clear case of “where do we go now?” Once the insect (who is named “Francoeur” and voiced by Sean Lennon) becomes an entertainment cause celebre, the narrative goes a bit sideways. Instead of spending time with its newfound fame, or discovering how he reacts to same, we almost instantly fall into an extended chase sequence that, while sensational in form and filmmaking prowess, does little for our affections. We are supposed to care for this critter, worry that he will face the despotic death determinations of Maynott and his men. But since we’ve really just met this “monster,” our sense of danger is diluted.
Similarly, Lucille is a bit of a pain. She’s a diva without the skills, her voice rather thin and her stage presence more about her winged outfits than her chops. We get why Maynott is fixated with her (and Raoul, for that matter), but the rest of her story is a struggle to accept. Emile and Maud make a far more charming couple, considering their respective jobs and social status, and there are ancillary characters (the MIA scientist, Inspector Pate) that deserve more than the mere plot-point lip service they get here. Still, A Monster is Paris is never really dull. We get past the more muddled facets with ease and end up enjoying the engaging if inconsistent ride.
Thanks to its beautiful look and skilled creation, A Monster in Paris proves there is life beyond the Hollywood hit machine and the omnipresent House of Mouse. As eye candy, it’s more than filling. As food for thought or an elixir for the spirit, it’s definitely lacking.