Avril Franklin has been searching for her abducted parents while attempting to complete their top-secret scientific research for 10 years. When she finally stumbles across a solution for their longevity serum, she is suddenly drawn into a government conspiracy that could lead her to her family — or to the end of human life on earth.

In Avril et le Monde Truqué, directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci imagine a dark France circa 1941, in which the Napoleonic line never ended, all scientists have mysteriously disappeared, and society never evolved past using charcoal as an energy source. That the film — clocking in at one hour and 45 minutes — is as thrilling as any Bourne installation speaks to the directors’ vision paired with an excellent animation team.

The film premiered last June at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France, where it won Best Feature Film, and comes to A/perture Cinema in Winston-Salem at the tail end of a limited US theatrical run. Its short A/perture visit, running from Friday through June 9, is a rare opportunity to see this thrilling and beautiful story play out on a large screen before it disappears into the hard-to-find foreign DVD and piracy abyss.

The English translation of the film’s title  April and the Extraordinary World  casts the film in a more twee, positive light than its French name suggests. Truqué doesn’t have an exact English counterpart, but a translation comes close to being somewhat tampered, rigged or falsified. Perhaps a more fittingly menacing English title would be April and the World That’s Not Quite Right.

Renowned graphic novelist Jacques Tardi masterfully conceptualized Avril’s world. Much of his work covers eerie alternate realities or wartime stories, so the pre-industrial France he creates in Avril is perfectly crafted as a whole, believable world. Soot clouds a country as statues of the latest Napoleon tower over abandoned factories; public transportation systems of blimp-trams and creaky moving walkways jerk and hiss in the background; undercover cyborg-rat spies trail Avril for the secret to her family’s serum.

The influence of another famed French comic artist, Hergé, is apparent in the realization of the characters, right down to the way the “camera” focuses on a getaway chase involving a jalopy and a bicycle dirigible as if following the panels of a classic Tintin story.

Just like in Tintin, the film relies on occasional moments of levity from goofier characters to provide laughs in between the scary reality of the overarching story (in this case, how Avril is being hunted down by a subterranean superspecies to help them destroy earth). Avril’s grandpa “Pops” is a caricature of a ditzy scientist; Darwin, her talking and indestructible cat, teases her and romantic interest Julius about their budding flirtation; and the bumbling Officer Pizoni and his obsessive decade-long search for Avril’s family is like a lighter homage to Inspector Javert from Les Miserables.

The thick outlines, simple grays and plain faces may seem reminiscent of animation studio Je Suis Bien Content’s previous work on the 2007 film Persepolis, based on the graphic novel of the same name following another spunky teen heroine in a tumultuous political time. Animation geeks craving something as emotionally powerful and simply animated as The Iron Giant or My Neighbor Totoro will find fast-paced panacea in each lovingly detailed panoramic shot.

Borrowing much more from Japan’s Studio Ghibli than distant animation cousins Disney and Pixar, Avril uses thick brushstrokes and a muted color scheme to capture a France of literary imagination the scrappy societal underbelly of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities blended with the Victorian-steampunk vibe found in the similarly magical 2011 film Hugo.

Though the conspiracy plot unravels at a breakneck speed much faster than say, Totoro, it’s still a kids’ movie, so the actors do speak more slowly than in regular French films, making it possible to keep up with the subtitles easily while soaking in the gorgeous steampunk visuals on the screen. (French speakers will likely chuckle at expletives like merde translated to “dang it” for apparently more sensitive English-speaking young viewers.)

There’s a dubbed version circulating the states, but it would be a sore loss to watch this film without Academy Award-winner Marion Cotillard voicing the main character. Her moxie suits Avril well, and her gravelly teen petulance sells the character just as much as the masterful animation does.

More than simply a creepy good time for adults, animation diehards and older kids who are fast enough readers to follow along, Avril et le Monde Truqué does not attempt to mask its commentary on the evils of war, the dangerous ethics of scientific study and the destruction of natural resources. The sobering takeaway, paired with its masterful artistry, make Avril well worth a weekend trip au cinéma.

Avril et le Monde Truqué opens Friday at A/perture Cinema in Winston-Salem and runs until June 9. For times and tickets, go to aperturecinema.com.

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