Worldbuilding might be by far my favorite aspect of storytelling. I love immersing myself in fictional universes such as Westeros, the Wizarding World, and a galaxy far, far away. But the most interesting fictional worlds are those based on the world we know.
I love comic books. Probably as much as I love films. And I much prefer the Franco-Belgians called Bandes dessinées to the US comics books, which is not surprising: I grew up reading them. Very few films manage to bring the experience of a bande dessinée to the big screens. We’ve seen (too) many comic book adaptation, but those films have nothing in common with the comic books except characters and storyline. They’re just films. And yet, comic books and films have so much in common. Which is why I love them both.
Films and comic books use visuals, dialogs, and—most importantly—pacing to tell their stories. Pacing in a movie is mainly found in the editing. Pacing in a comic book, however, is created by the panels of images on a page, and the pages themselves. Yet, while a film is a collective effort and costs lots of money, a comic book requires as much as one, two, or sometimes three peoples, a few tools and lots of time. Therefore the author’s imagination is not limited by what’s technically doable and is limitless.
Setting the story universe
April and the Extraordinary World starts with a simple idea: the Franco-Prussian War doesn’t break out and the House of Bonaparte stays in power in France. Renowned scientists disappear, leaving the world without the technology as we know it. Instead, technological developments are based solely on coal, and then burning wood. As a result, Europe is depleted of tress and highly polluted by 1931, and is at war with Canada to use their vast forests. Scientists are hunted to work for the Empire and develop new weapons to help win the war.
That idea is illustrated in the gorgeous visuals designed by French cartoonist Jacques Tardi. Animation is costly, and as I said in my article on The Lion King, the filmmakers need to convey as many ideas as possible in little time. That’s exactly what they did: dark clouds above the polluted steampunk Paris. Two Eiffel Towers welcome the aerial tramway station to Berlin. It only takes 82 hours to go to the German capital. A trip that takes nowadays 8 hours to make. The alternate history dystopian world has been set in a few frames.
Finding the story
A super interesting world serves no purpose if it’s not used to tell an interesting story within that world. April secretly works on the serum for ever-lasting life that her seemingly dead scientists parents achieved 10 years earlier in hopes to save her dying cat. She is obsessively hunted by an inspector of police but escapes and reunites with her also scientist grandfather. Together, they’ll embark on a quest to find what happened to her parents, after finding proof that her father is still alive.
April and the Extraordinary World is the closest cinematic experience to a bande dessinée.
The film is very much a personal quest interlinked with the idea of a better world. Finding both the serum and the disappeared scientists could deliver hopes for a better life in this dystopian setting. The plot reminded me of Edgar P. Jacobs’ Blake & Mortimer, a famous Franco-Belgian comic book series. Combined with Jacques Tardi’s unique sense for visuals and characters, I found April and the Extraordinary World to be the closest cinematic experience to a bande dessinée.
Crafting the film
The world serves a second purpose here. It draws parallels between the story world and the real world. Ever thought our planet was too polluted? Think again, it could’ve been much worse should electricity and nuclear power hadn’t been invented. However cruel, wars are the cradle of technological advancements. And the most interesting thing is—according to the film—that even though they’ve been stuck with coal and wood, they caught up pretty quickly with a moon landing in the 2000s. Life always finds a way.
I wish I could see more films like April and the Extraordinary World. The worldbuilding here is excellent. It’s a gorgeous film. Well written too, although the resolution might raise some eyebrows to those who are not familiar with bande dessinée. It felt like every frame of the film came out from a page of a comic book. It has good rhythm, good humor, and it’s filled with likable characters. Each of which has decent characterization and serves a purpose to drive the plot forward.
Thoughts on the state of animated films in Europe
With the many talents from bande dessinée in Belgium and France (and other countries of course), Europe has the creative capability to compete with the likes of Disney, Pixar, and Studio Ghibli. Yet that film took reportedly 7 years to develop and finance. The opening credits are packed with Belgian, Canadian, and French production companies who backed the film’s financing. It cost less than 10 million euros to make. By comparison, Zootopia, who came out the year after, cost 15 times as much. And Zootopia‘s worldbuilding is far from being as seamless.