The joy of finding a surprise, excellent movie to watch

Phantom Boy is playing in a limited number of UK cinemas this weekend. It's just the kind of surprise that's hard to find in modern movies.

I’ve written before about my love of Saturday and Sunday morning kids’ clubs at multiplexes, where you can take your anklebiters to see a film that’s a couple of months post-its release. Such screenings are a godsend to parents of fidgety children, or those of us trying to introduce our youngsters to the cinema. There’s a kinship in there. Nobody goes in expecting children to be perfectly quiet, and there’s usually a spirit of tolerance and some degree of shared film love. Plus, let’s be honest, it’s not a bad value couple of hours either, given that the price tends to be lowered too.

Most of the time, kids’ clubs play films that have been loudly promoted and screened for weeks as part of their main release. You’re all but guaranteed that any mainstream family animation will turn up within a couple of months, and the odd live action feature too. But every now and then, there are pockets in the schedules that programmers of said kids’ clubs fill with something that you genuinely may not have had on your radar.

I first experienced this with Paper Planes, an utterly delightful Australian movie that Lionsgate picked up for UK distribution last year. The Empire Cinemas circuit then programmed it in its own kids’ club slot, and I went in knowing not too much about it. What a glorious treat it was, too, an intelligent, exciting kids’ caper, culminating in a paper plane competition that had me rooting for the protagonists. What’s more, my children really liked it too (I figure that’s of importance as well), and now it’s landed on Netflix UK, it gets a regular airing in our house.

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This weekend past, we had the opportunity to take in a Sunday morning movie, and in truth, we were going to give Monster Trucks a whirl. But I did my usual browse of the kids’ club listings, and saw that Odeon had programmed an animation I hadn’t heard a word about. It’s called Phantom Boy, a French movie from Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, who previously gifted the world A Cat In Paris.

Phantom Boy looked interesting. Overlooking the two and a half stars the Odeon website had bestowed upon the film, the synopsis talked of a superhero story, a gangster needing to be defeated, and special powers. I’ve not earned my nerd stripes for nothing, and Monster Trucks was swiftly abandoned. We clambered in the car, and it was Phantom Boy for us. Well, for us, and the three other people in the cinema.

Now, we’ve taken the kids’ club gamble before, and ended up watching Norm Of The North, a film so bland and generic that even Norm looked bored. Likewise, the less said about the new attempt to bring Robinson Crusoe to the screen in animated form, the better.

Yet Phantom Boy was and is an absolute treat. I’d only seen the stunning A Monster Calls the week before, and there’s a slight overlap. The hero of Phantom Boy, Leo, is very sick in hospital, and his power comes from the fact that he can (temporarily) leave his body to see what’s happening in the world. There’s a scene early on where he sees and appreciates the brave front that his parents are putting on has been just that, and it damn near broke me on the spot.

But this isn’t a film designed to jerk tears. Rather, we see how Leo befriends a detective, himself in dire straits, and the pair work together to try and bring down a villain that’s a lovely homage to Batman comics. In fact, the film is dripping with comics homages, and an endearing, uncompromised, individual and crafted visual style. I really think Phantom Boy is a terrific, wonderfully odd piece of work, and it impressed my younger nerds in training too, aged from enthusiastic three year old to grumpy teenager.

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When I got home I checked back, as I’d not heard of the film before, and – shamefully – found an invite to a screening from last September. It was from Soda Pictures, a small distributor in the UK who hand pick their movies and fight hard to get a light shone on them whilst blockbusters hog Graham Norton’s sofa. I can’t help feeling that I’ve let Soda Pictures down. I consider it the job of a website like this to actively seek out films such as Phantom Boy and shout about them, to always be looking for something that’s otherwise missed in the noise of movie marketing. Hopefully, this piece redresses the balance just a little.

And for those who missed out, the news is good, because this very weekend, another collection of Odeon Cinemas are playing the film on Saturday and Sunday morning. Each of the screenings is at 10.30am, and the unwritten – and sometimes written – rule of kids’ club screenings is that you have to have a child with you. But might I recommend you do make the effort to see this one on the big screen if you can? It’s just over 80 minutes long, and it’s stuck in my head all week. If you can’t make it, then Soda is putting out the DVD on February 13th, and there’s a trailer for the DVD here.

It really makes my day when I discover a delightful film pretty much cold, knowing next to nothing about it first. Especially one that can be enjoyed by a family audience. Thoughtfully dubbed, beautifully realised, Phantom Boy – and I’ve kept it spoiler light here, by the way – is certainly one of those. With due apologies to the folks at Soda, and a shake of the head at poor Norm Of The North, I shall endeavour to widen my search. Monster Trucks will just have to wait…