Homesickness was partly what inspired French director Bibo Bergeron to make animated fin-de-siècle fantasy A Monster in Paris, and it shows. The film vibrates with a warm, nostalgic affection for the capital city which is easily shared by the audience. Its characters and story, however, are less easy to love.
Set against the backdrop of the 1910 Parisian floods, A Monster in Paris boasts a number of charms, though none so consistently as to make it a truly satisfying or exciting feature.
Somewhat ironically for a film which opens in a projectionist’s booth, a lack of focus is partly to blame. A Monster in Paris opens on a love story between mild-mannered cinema projectionist Émile (and part-time leprechaun by the looks of his character design) and ticket booth attendant, Maud.
Almost as soon as it’s established though, Émile and Maud’s story is sidelined by a multi-stranded plot involving the accidental creation of a musically talented mega-flea, a brand new romance between a forward-thinking inventor and a nightclub singer, and a megalomaniac politician seeking mayoral election.
No longer the story of the romantic projectionist and his Walter Mitty-like fantasy life, A Monster in Paris struggles to settle on who its hero is.
The complexity means the most interesting and unusual part of the story – Francoeur the mutated singing flea – feels frustratingly underdeveloped. If it’s Frankenstein’s creature Bergeron is aping, then not enough of the story is given over to making Francoeur’s monstrosity monstrous or his humanity human.
The film is at its most enjoyable during the musical sequences. Vanessa Paradis and Sean Lennon provide the characters’ voices in this English-dubbed version of the French original, and it’s these catchy tunes and accompanying dream-like visuals which really spark A Monster in Paris into life.
The songs only account for a small percentage of the film however, much of the rest being taken up with the frankly dull villain Maynott, and a paceless drawn-out chase scene which could do with a jump lead.
The Parisian cityscapes are prettily drawn, the art nouveau period detail is eye-catching, but the script doesn’t sparkle like the Seine, unfortunately.
The 3D conversion too is completely redundant save for adding a bob or two onto the ticket price, providing neither extra depth nor sense of immersion in the frame.
Bergeron has constructed a composite myth, borrowing a little of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a little of The Phantom of the Opera, a touch of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Beauty and the Beast, King Kong and Frankenstein for his story of a mutated flea which finds its spiritual home in a Parisian music hall.
The film’s stranger elements make it quite endearing – you don’t see a giant singing flea dressed up like Quentin Crisp everyday – but on the whole A Monster in Paris is too derivative in character and plot to make a lasting impression. Even Francoeur isn’t as delightful or surprising as anything you’d find in a Studio Ghibli production, for instance.
There are one or two laughs to be had along the way, and A Monster in Paris will teach young audiences a little about the French capital, art nouveau, literary archetypes, and the history of film (there must have been a memo to directors this year about name checking Méliès), all of which is no bad thing. But if it’s animated Paris you’re after, Belleville Rendez Vous, The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Ratatouille will serve you better.