“Family Movie” is a genre that doesn’t really exist in France. We make comedy watchable by all the family, yes, but it’s more of a side effect than an actual primary goal. If you want to watch a good family movie you go watch a Spielberg or a Disney film… If you want to watch a good family movie you go and watch an Hollywood movie.
It might appear as a harsh jugement on French cinema but it’s a fact, at least in the way I see family movies. For me they are different from “normal” children movies. They are the kind of movies which were created while the producers/directors/artistic team had your children in mind but you were clearly there too. All that delivers a movie with a simple (not simplistic) and compelling plot but also colorful characters, interesting world buildings, subtitle details, which doesn’t shield itself from violence but stays intouchable by any form of censure. You see that it’s a pretty large category: Disney’s animation, E.T, Hook and even Star Wars are clearly part of it.
Animation has always been an important vector for that genre (because the Evil Queen’s transformation was kinda hard to do in special effects in 1937). Therefore Disney’s animation has been a big part of the industry for many years…until Disney’s animation betrays us all…
Frozen…seriously Disney, what the ****?
The year is 2013, Disney is currently negotiating to buy the rights to the Star Wars franchise and therefore becoming an even scarier (yeah that’s possible) war machine in Hollywood but this is not the subject here. The subject is its new princess movie which will feature not one princess but two! And Disney makes sure that you know it. See ; no more sexist trops! Princesses save themselves! No love story! One of them has cool powers! LOVE ME! (I plead guilty, I am extremely sensitive to agressive advertisement campaigns, they have a negative impact on me).
And guess what? The film is a big hit! It even won two Oscars including best animated film against Kaze Tachinu, the last traditionally animated movie of the acclaimed Hayao Miyazaki (and probably one of the best historical movie I have ever seen). And it also makes a shit ton of money (I have heard somewhere that it’s kinda important). There is one tiny detail: the film isn’t a good family movie.
Don’t get me wrong the film is a nice children movie, just not a good family one and this is why :
First I have to explain that I have actually saw it a long time after it’s theatre release, post its Oscar consecration actually. I was a bit aware of the plot twist too. But I actually adore spoilers (the way is more important than the destination, children) and it was the reason which made me watch the movie. Because at first I was a bit bitter that Kaze Tachinu (the movie that I went to see in the theatre, priorities duh) didn’t get any Oscars and lost to a movie that looks very uninspired to me. But anyway ; I downloaded illegally totally legally Frozen and I was… disappointed in humanity. How can you make such a fuze of that?! (cut me some slack, I am 20, if I am not passionate now I will be brain dead before I blow out my 40th candles).
The movie isn’t just uninspired in its design or story, the plot is full of holes (my God that political plot), the characters are boring at best annoying at worst. My dear plot twist was so poorly realized that it was on the level of: “actually I was mean from the beginning MOUHAHAHAHAHA*caught”. And of course it still managed to be sexist. “But, you say to me, aren’t you a bit harsh? ” To that I respond, oh babe I am not alone.
visual metaphor of Frozen’s political plot
Frozen is simplistic, takes our children for dummies (and us too but we have given Disney the stick it uses to beat us so do we have the right to complain?) and yet it’s considered as a very good family movie. And of course it was a big commercial success even in France which brings us to the unfairness of April and the Twisted World. (But Let it Go is catchy, I concede)
April and the Twisted World
April and the Twisted World (you might have heard of April and the Extraordinary World too because it has two english titles but I found that twisted was a better translation of the original « truqué ») is a french-canadian-german (because none of us have enough money to actually produce that kind of animation on our own) movie that was realeased in theatres in 2015. Inspired by one of the worlds of the famous french graphic artist Jacques Tardi, it follows the adventure of Avril (April in english) Franklin, a young woman whose parents have disappeared when she was a child, in a steam punk early 20th century France. In her quest to find them she is accompanied by her talking cat Darwin and other characters. (If you are somewhat confused by the talking cat it is important to note that Tardi has brought a pterodactyl to 19th century Paris from another of his universe).
First, the world-building is fantastic. I am a sucker for steam punk and this one is both really well-thought and original (I think it’s the first one that I see taking place not in the 19th century but in the 20th). I mean look at that:
And this world has an interesting political background too (what are the people asking for?)! Napoleon the 5th is meeting an Empress of Great Britain. There is a war with a federation of the United States for control of resources. Avril is living in a police state and the creators use it to heavily criticize the over-use of police by the State (ridiculous cop being responsible of terrible things).
Even if sometimes they are a bit under-developed the characters are still compelling. Avril has both determination and emotion (she is not just a boss-ass bitch) and Marion Cotillard’s interpretation has a titi parisien vibe that anyone a bit familiar with Gavroche or Edith Piaf will appreciate. Darwin is the bae (he is a “chatmuraï” after all). Julius (Avril’s love interest) has a good mental progression and since he lacks the scientific capacities required to have a primary role in the plot he stays in a supportive one. Paps (Avril’s grand father) is touching but also very resourceful.
The emotions, ours and the characters’, are also very well managed. The scene where Avril is shaved by a nurse saying “You will see an orphanage is a nice place without lice” is quiet harsh. Avril’s reaction in front of the wardrobe full of same dresses but of different sizes that her grand-father has bought for her every year hoping to finally find her is also very emotional.
There is also the fact that the story tries to avoid cliches and brings a positive message. Darwin is a mistake, a missed experimentation, he says so himself and yet he is always treated as a real character and finally saves the day. Avril is boyish but doesn’t shy away from femininity when she actually can while still being actually competent. Avril’s mother is more concerned by her work whereas her husband is more concerned by his family and both have actually good reasons to do so. Women are competent scientists etc.
Of course the movie has flows: the plot is sometimes too crowded, the bad guys are lizard people, but it doesn’t stop the all of being really good and compelling.
The tragically common story of a flop:
So what is the problem here? What is the link to Frozen? Well Avril and the Twisted World is good family movie and professional critics have acknowledged that. It has even won a prize in 2015: the Cristal of the best movie at Annecy International Festival of Animated Movies. However the movie was a flop in the theatre. Its release on the big screen in France only brought back 8% of its initial budget (initial budget of 9 millions euros when Frozen was of 150 millions of dollars). A lot of things have played a role in this: very little advertisement (the campaign started only few weeks before its release), a shitty distribution, only Marion Cotillard as big name for the profanes etc. I remember seeing the poster in the subway and saying to myself that the design was nice but that’s all. I have never seen the trailer or heard any mainstream journalist talk about it. That’s why I actually only discovered the movie during a plane ride a few weeks ago.
Avril and the Twisted World didn’t repay itself and one of the reason for this is because it didn’t have enough budget to actually have an efficient advertisement campaign. It didn’t have the money because it wasn’t a product of a big studio, because it seemed too obscur to actually be worth of the money as nothing said bankable about this project and the producers are, as a general rule, not brave. So yeah one of reason of this flop is the producers only trusting big names. But that’s not all of it;
You know which other projects could have been considered in exactly the same way? Star Wars. The one from 1977. Its success wasn’t immediate upon its release. It’s the public that slowly and surely turned Star Wars into a success. Except that nowadays we have changed. Facing a massive amount of entertainment on offer we nearly only look for big names in mass entertainment and we let little projects with a lot of passion and quality die in silence. We let Disney spoon-feed us with Frozen when we could actually take another bite of Avril and the Twisted World. And that is just sad.
But thank God Zootopia was good!