The French Spirited Away to New York: Phantom Boy
By Jessica Baxter.
Co-directors Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol follow up their Oscar nominated film, A Cat in Paris, with Phantom Boy, a film that is perplexingly set in New York City, though everything else about it is as French as can be including the humor and animation style. The script (by Gagnol) tells the story of Leo, an eleven-year-old boy who, afflicted with an unnamed, but serious enough illness to require chemotherapy, learns that he can escape the loneliness of his hospital bed through astral projection for brief stints. When Leo meets Lt. Alex Tanguy (Édouard Baer), an injured police officer with a knack for getting on his boss’s nerves, he uses his power to help ensnare a criminal mastermind who threatens to bring the city to its knees. Phantom Boy is perhaps too simple a story to appeal to all ages, but for children, it is a terrific introduction to heady themes like crime noir and, more importantly, grave illnesses and mortality.
Just before the hospital admits Leo (Gaspard Gagnol) for long-term chemo treatments, he tells his little sister not to worry. He will always be able to come and visit her because he has the special power to leave his body when he is sleeping. It sounds like nothing more than comforting words from a conscientious big brother, but we soon learn that he is being literal. His first night in the hospital, he follows his mother back to her car where she breaks down crying, having put up a brave face for him at his bedside. Before long, Leo realizes that his phantom power is good for a lot more than just seeing his family. He soars through the streets of New York, free and happy, while his sick corporeal self is bed-ridden.
Though he meets other sick patients during his outings, Leo is the only one who can remember his adventures after he wakes up. He helps them to return to their bodies before it is too late – if one remains a phantom for too long, he or she begins to evaporate. Leo first meets Lt. Tanguy in phantom form, and is later surprised when the officer recognizes him in the flesh in the hospital hallway. Tanguy realizes that he can use Leo’s powers to help him catch a criminal mastermind – the mysterious “Man with the Broken Face” – whom he failed to apprehend at the time of his injury. Aiding them in their mission is a plucky young reporter, Mary Delaney (Audrey Tatou) with whom Tanguy enjoys the occasional flirtation. Mary must do the legwork (so to speak) because she is the only one of the three who is able to leave the hospital in a physical body. Unbeknownst to her, Leo flies alongside her and relays the action to Tanguy, who then uses Leo’s observations to warn Mary of danger via phone.
Much of Phantom Boy follows a sort of child logic. For instance, the Man with the Broken Face’s plot is as simple as it is imprudent. This Dick Tracy villain throwback takes the city hostage for $8 billion, lest he infect all of the computers with a virus. The virus is depicted in hilarious 8-bit graphics – a skull-and-crossbones cackles next to an ancient computer monitor. Mr. Robot it’s not. But children don’t need practicality to be entertained. This hodgepodge of criminal elements is a good introduction to the genre for children. There is one out-of-place scene, which takes place at a strip club. But again, it plays more like a child’s interpretation of what such a place would be like. After all, every crime story seems to lead to a strip club eventually.
One especially clever running gag involves the Man with the Broken Face constantly attempting to deliver a rehearsed monologue about the origins of his deformity, but always getting interrupted. No one cares about his origin story as much as he does.
Despite all its whimsy, Phantom Boy manages to cater entirely to children without feeling patronizing. What kid doesn’t love the idea of a child hero? Better still if they can speak French.
For over a decade, Jessica Baxter has provided her solicited opinion on films for the likes of Film Threat, ReelTime Blog, and Hammer to Nail. She is thrilled to continue her work with Film International, where she also serves as Image Editor for the journal. She also wrote and directed the award-winning short films, Snow Day, Bloody Snow Day (2005) and Love & 145 Watts (2004) and worked on two critically acclaimed music documentaries for King of Hearts Productions – Tad: Busted Circuits & Ringing Ears (2008) and Mudhoney: I’m Now (2012). She resides in Seattle, Washington, USA where she keeps and cares for two small humans.