I somewhat regret now not going to see A Monster in Paris in the cinemas. I put it off despite liking the look of the quirky trailer because it would have been in English rather than the original French, and I would much rather see the original with subtitles. As it turns out, that was a bad idea, for within a few minutes of watching in French and then switching to English to make a comparison, it became very obvious that the animation was matched to the English performances. A bit of a pity, that, especially as the main characters in particular sounded better in French, meaning that neither option was very satisfactory.
I suppose for that reason being able to watch on an aeroplane where switching language options was very simple was an advantage, but in the end I ended up giving precedent to the English version. Maybe the French version came out first and was what the creators were envisioning at conception, but the animators were clearly working with the English performances, and with something as precise as CG, that was what ended up taking precedence for me.
Anyway, this is the first solo feature from Bibo Films, the animation company of Road to El Dorado director Bibo Bergeron. In a very French sort of a story, two rather quirky friends doing a simple delivery decide to play with the mysterious chemicals made by a botanical professor and end up using a miracle growth formula and a potion for giving a beautiful voice on a tiny flea. It grows to seven feet tall and escapes onto the streets of Paris, causing panic at first but finding a place to belong when celebrated local singer Lucille (Vanessa Paradis in both French and English version) – coincidentally in a will-they-won’t-they childhood-friends relationship with one of the delivery drivers – hears his strange, pure, high-pitched voice (from M, who sang ‘Belleville Rendez-vous’ in LesTriplettes de Belleville in French and Sean Lennon in English) and takes him in. In disguise, he brings a brilliant new angle to the show. But the flea, given the name Francœur by Lucille, is a wanted creature, not least by slimy mayoral candidate Maynott – who is also after Lucille’s favours. The ensuing romp will incorporate dirigible rides, a flooded and deserted
and the funicular at Eiffel Tower Montmartre.
For a non-major CGI studio, the film looks rather lovely, especially in the sweeping background shots and the musical sequences, which are rendered lovingly. There are some things that really don’t work, especially the slapstick humour and a few reaction shots of the main characters that just don’t feel correct in terms of timing, but visually it’s up there with the best and a little more irreverent with it – witness the caricatures of Steve Jobs, ‘Those Google Guys’ and John Lasseter.
On the other hand, it’s no wonder that it was a bit of a cult success while making little impact for a wider public. There are people to whom a giant singing flea is a wonderfully silly and compelling idea, and there are people who want things much more ordinary and straightforward in their animated films.
For me, it had more appeal because it was so odd. Because it had that classic nonsense of magic potions and giant sunflowers and sapient monkeys. It used chemistry onstage to make a giant insect likeable and had at its heart the importance of music. That won it major points for me.
On the other hand, the main problem was that the two central characters, Raoul and Emile, are just not very interesting or well-developed. They get progression in their romances, but that doesn’t seem to develop anything about their characters, and neither is very likeable from the start. They have their eccentricities, but that doesn’t make them charming, and ultimately they left me cold – and since they are the emotional heart of the story, that was a big problem.
Still, while it was imperfect, the film had its hooks and was well worth seeing.