Harper Watched: A Monster In Paris

Harper Watched is a feature where I review a film I watched (or sometimes a TV show). Today we have a french animated film called A Monster In Paris

Review: A Monster In Paris
(c/o EUROPA)
Ever the fan of animated movies, I took the time off afforded by the snow day last week to watch a totally cute animated movie on Netflix: A Monster in Paris. I'd seen the trailer when it first came state-side but due to other films coming out around the same time, I wasn't particularly interested in it. On top of them making one of the headlining features the fact that it was from the same people who brought us Shark Tale (fun, but unimpressive and fluffy), the animation looked a lot like that of Hotel Transylvania which I didn't really like, so I put it out of my mind. Only recently when I watched another French animated film, Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart, did I regain interest in the movie since the trailer for it was built into my DVD of Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart. The thing that stuck out to me most, having been super into the music in Jack, was the music in the trailer.

The plot

So what is this movie about? It's set in Paris, obviously, but less obviously it's set in a steampunk-ish Paris that Jules Verne might've imagined. Even less obviously, it's set in a Paris in turmoil-- The Seine has flooded dramatically, leaving the inhabitants of the lower-lying levels of the city the exact opposite of high-and-dry. Most Parisians struggle to get from one place to another, needing to use boats and floating walk ways to get about. Many have lost homes and businesses to the flooding. The only place where business goes about as usual is up on the hill of Montmartre, where most of the story takes place. Parts of the story seem very loosely based off of The Phantom of the Opera, but it is a very distinct story and most of the references are more like mini-homages and easter eggs than heavy plot points.

We open the film learning about Paris' wet predicament and of Emile, a short, shy projectionist at a movie theater who is in love with Maude, a coworker of his at the cinema. He has a friend named Raoul (which I think is intentionally a reference to Phantom) who is a brilliant, fast-talking, kinda dorky inventor who runs a delivery service using a delivery truck he has modified in a number of unusual ways. It's named Catherine. I wish they had named the truck "Christine" instead, but I digress.

Meanwhile, Lucille, a successful singer at The Rare Bird is introduced. For her act, she wears white and wings like an angel (one might even say... an Angel of Music?). She ends up catching the eye of the wealthy police commissioner, Victor Maynott. Maynott is obsessed with himself and his ambition, even at the expense of the Parisians still struggling with the effects of the flood. Lucille is unimpressed and frankly a little disgusted with the way the commissioner acts, but nonetheless her aunt tries to encourage her to take up with him anyway.

Raoul brings Emile along for a delivery to the Botanical Garden for a Professor who is currently away in New York. The professor left his assistant, a proboscis monkey named Charles, in charge of the garden which also serves as a laboratory. Raoul and Emile go exploring the lab and end up tinkering with some potions that cause a sunflower seed to grow into a 50-foot flower, give Charles a fantastic singing voice, and makes a flea that had been living on Charles grow to 7 feet and gain a propensity for music and song. The flea escapes into the night and adventure ensues!

Getting down to business

The first thing I want to talk about is how great the story is. As I was watching I kept hypothesizing what kind of story I thought it'd end up being: Beauty and the Beast? King Kong? While the plot made a lot of sense and had great flow and logic, it never allowed itself to be simplified into a singular familiar archetypal story. I was really pleasantly surprised by how many layers there were to the story, and despite how many storylines and characters were involved, it still had great pacing and managed not to be confusing or slow. That's a really really difficult thing to do. (Just look at how ridiculous and muddied Pirates of the Caribbean 3 got when they decided they wanted to try to give us details on every character's stake in the situation.) There's the deal with Paris flooded. There's the Monster on the loose. There's the corrupt commissioner who is gunning for more power, the death of the Monster, and for Lucille. There's Emile's affections for Maude. There's Lucille's music career. There's Raoul and Lucille's childhood history. All of this rolls together really nicely, actually, and it doesn't add on tons of time for them to do so. It is a really beautifully executed story in my opinion, and I really treasure the rarity of a film being able to accomplish so much, so well, in a reasonable amount of screen time.

The film does work out with main action and some bits that act more like epilogue, so I recommend watching all the way through the credits, even after the main conflict seems to come to a full resolution.

I love the character designs in this movie. They are really well done, with every character being very unique in form and color (which is more than one can say about a lot of animated movies) and each one has unique expressions and ways of moving. I also love that Emile is a really short guy-- and his shortness is never a plot point or tool in the story. Often, when a guy is made really short, or a girl is made really tall, or any number of unusual for a insert-demographic-here trait is put into a character, it's so the story can be furthered by it in some way. That's not really a bad thing all on it's own but it usually means that we don't see those characters unless the story specifically requires one. But in real life, some guys are just short-- and their existence doesn't need to be validated by a moment when they are the only one small enough to save a baby trapped in a small space. The visuals are really full of that surreal warmth that I now readily associate with French film. The lighting and texture is good and the movement works really well, too. 

The vocal casting for this film is fantastic! I think they were able to rework the speech animation for this film unlike other foreign films where dubbing is the only option, leaving little margin for writers and voice actors to work in. The voices fit the characters really well, and the comedic lines were delivered well. The songs were also really fun! This isn't necessarily a musical movie in terms of plot being driven through song, but with both Lucille and Francoeur (the monster) being singers in the film, there are some great songs. My favorite is their duet about The Seine, "La Seine/The Seine and I"

Harper's Rating: 5/5

Great music
Complex, but not complicated plot
Cute character designs
Strong sense of pace
Solid animation
Has a great sense of adventure to it
Good values of both love and friendship being modeled
Generates critique of political corruption and asks who benefits from calling others criminals, even when the crimes are minor or defensible?
Smart writing and plot
"The Seine and I" is so catchy and pretty
Jules Verne-style dirigibles and whatnot
Epilogue style ending, which some may dislike or disapprove of
It is not as musical or as funny as some might expect out of an animated movie of this style
You've kind of gotta fall in love with the characters quickly, because it moves from exposition to the meat of the story fast


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