This week I decided to take a break from the darker side of the cinemaverse, since the world seems to be blowing up, as it is. At the same time I have to make a ground-breaking confession: I’m addicted to animated films. And I don’t use my child as an excuse to watch them, either; I have been known to watch a Disney three or four times in a row at the cinema. If it’s animated, I want to watch it.
However, in a field that is essentially owned by Disney, Pixar, Studio Ghibli, and Dreamworks, the variety of animation I treasure most is the rare indie. They fly under the radar until they’re scented out, like a legendary Pokémon, and added to my collection.
One such is Un monstre à Paris, a 2011 French-language film directed by Bibo Bergeron, later dubbed into English with some famous vocal talents. It starts simply enough, with a news clip of the Parisian flood of 1910 to set the time-frame. Wait, isn’t this an animation? That’s an actual live clip! My hand pauses over my popcorn, relaxing only as the film eases into the animated “main feature”, bioscope-style. Within two minutes, I am an ardent fan – “They used dry humour on me, officer! How was I supposed to say ‘no’?“.
Within ten minutes, we have met the cast, and already I’m getting strong nostalgic waves of Beauty and the Beast, Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Phantom of the Opera.
There’s Emile, the shy, adorable projectionist who has a crush on Maud, the bespectacled and equally sweet ticket-seller at the bioscope. There’s Raoul, Emile’s outspoken, somewhat rebellious inventor friend, who has a love affair with Catherine – his automated delivery truck. (Her selective responses to Raoul’s remote control give her a Herbie-like personality that I love.)
Meanwhile, Raoul also has a super-secret crush on Lucille, the fresh-faced star of a cabaret, who is being wooed by the arrogant, elitist police commissioner Maynott. The cast is supported by the appearances of a long-suffering police inspector, a cheerful cabaret manager, a disgruntled (and tone-deaf) waitron. There’s an educated monkey, too! Mr. Bobo from Pirates! has nothing on Charles, the singing, literate proboscis monkey!
Raoul and Emile get the ball rolling by causing a chemical explosion in a laboratory (despite several warnings from Charles), and inadvertently creating a monster, before quitting the scene post-haste. Cut to Lucille, who is being encouraged to accept the advances of Commissioner Maynott, and having none of it because…well, he’s Gaston. In a suit and cravat.
But never fear! The monster has already made grand headway through Paris, and Maynott must now focus on how to catch and kill it, because “There’s a monster in Paris! People are scared!” (Arguably my favourite line in the entire film).
The monster winds up in the back alley of the cabaret, and Lucille discovers that, despite being seven feet tall and insectoid, it has an angelic voice (provided by Sean Lennon) and a natural inclination for music. Obviously, she names it, dresses it in human clothes, and hides it in her dressing room, and of course he accidentally winds up on stage for her show…at which point my brain switches off all logic. I am now well and truly trapped because, if I may make another confession, it is this: music rules my soul.
The Paradis/Lennon rendition of ‘La Seine’, while lyrically simplistic, is harmonically riveting. Backed with a fairy-tale palette and an enchanting fantasy montage, the palpable sensation of two musical souls finding each other in pure and platonic affection, raises the hair on the back of my neck.
As always in these situations the good feels cannot last forever; a shocking betrayal forces a daring escape plan and an insane pursuit across Paris. Maynott’s self-obsession drives him mad; the core message, phrased so aptly by Disney’s Hunchback, seems to be “Who is the monster, and who is the man?”
Reviews at the time of release criticised the wayward nature of the plot, stating that viewers would find it hard to follow what’s going on, that the film is having an existential crisis. Sure, the story here is intricate, but it’s perfectly told.
At heart, I’m a romantic, which is probably why the themes of this film resonate so clearly with me. The first is the concept of Pure Love. It is not romantic, it does not involve lust; it is the uninhibited joy and celebration of Beauty wherever one may find it.
If you are a child at heart, or just love a good old-fashioned fairy-tale, A Monster In Paris is for you. The music is magical and the humour is dry – though there are some slapstick gags to keep younger viewers happy. The animation is not the digital masterpiece one expects from the big production houses, but the script and relatable character development more than compensate. All in all, A Monster in Paris is a very pleasing package.