By Ross Bonaime
In their surprise 2010 Oscar nominee A Cat in Paris, directors Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol told a relatively simple story about a cat and its two masters that hid its desire for more depth hiding in the background. With their latest film Phantom Boy, their goal to tell a more meaningful story is hampered by also trying to keep their second film equally simple. The result is a sophomore effort whose ideas exceed the filmmaker’s grasp.
The eponymous “Phantom Boy” is Leo, an 11-year-old boy who learns that he has the ability to leave his body and fly around the world in a phantom state. Leo earned this gift after a cancer diagnosis and the chemo that followed. Leo’s newfound abilities seem like Phantom Boy trying to say something about the escapism that helps people deal with the pain of such diseases, yet the film never delves into that idea whatsoever.
While tracking down a terrorist known only as The Man With the Broken Face, Lieutenant Tanguy of the NYPD injures his leg and is left to recover at the same hospital as Leo. As The Man With the Broken Face threatens New York City with a computer virus that can blackout the city and worse, Tanguy utilizes Leo’s gifts – in a very Rear Window-y – way to help track down the villain threatening the city.
As with A Cat in Paris, Phantom Boy’s strength is in its gorgeous animation, which blends noir visuals, art deco style and the work of Picasso. New York City looks beautiful as Leo flies overhead or sits on the Statue of Liberty’s torch. It’s the perfect environment for Leo to explore and a wonderful playground to reconstruct through this type of animation.
The story within Phantom Boy’s beauty unfortunately doesn’t have the same level of care and detail. Far too many story details are left incredibly vague to make almost every aspect much lighter than it should be. The terrorist threats of The Man With the Broken Face are mostly ignored by about halfway through the film, and his bumbling lackeys never make him seem like a real threat anyways. Leo’s powers sort of fit into whatever Gangol’s screenplay needs them to at the moment. In the third act for example, we learn that manipulating Leo’s body will contort his phantom self and we discover the restrictions of his flights at the last moment, only when the film needs a source of tension.
Sometimes this lack of thought does work in the film’s favor however, as The Man With the Broken Face’s telling of his origin story is always stopped before it begins. But this emptiness of any past with these characters or background to really any of them leaves Phantom Boy quite emotionally void. Keep in mind, this is a film about a boy who escapes his body due to a severe disease, yet there is little heft to this story that could be filled with some drama or emotional possibilities.
Phantom Boy ends up being much like it’s main character: beautiful to look at in action, but completely empty on the inside. There’s a darkness and a tragedy within, yet Phantom Boy never delves into the promise it has. Instead, Phantom Boy is simply as gorgeous as it is hollow.