A version of this review appeared in The Age, September 20, 2012.
After many years in Hollywood – where his directing credits include A Shark's Tale and The Road to El Dorado – the French digital animator Bibo Bergeron has returned home for his latest and most personal project. Alas, this fantasy-adventure set during the Great Paris Flood of 1910 lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.
Swiftly leaving its historical starting point behind, the complex plot devised by Bergeron and his co-writer Stephane Kazandjian involves a shy projectionist (voiced by Jay Harrington), a nerdy inventor (Adam Goldberg), a grasping mayoral candidate (Danny Huston), a proboscis monkey, an airship, and a giant flea who just wants to be a cabaret star. With the heroes' aid, he achieves this dream, crooning in the voice of Sean Lennon while hiding his identity behind a mask like the Phantom of the Opera.
This inventive story could be the basis for an excellent children's book, but as a film it barely works at all. Part of the problem lies in the character designs: the inventor is a feeble clone of the one in Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs while the monster lacks a strong personality of any sort. Moreover, the brash American voices used in the film's English-language dub don't assist in maintaining the intended, delicately whimsical mood.
Bergeron and his team ensure that iconic settings from Montmartre to the Eiffel Tower are convincingly recreated, while giving equal attention to the fickle Parisian weather. But on a relatively low budget, they can't hope to match the level of background detail we've come to expect from Pixar or Disney, nor do they have the same scope for hectic action sequences and rapid-fire visual gags. If there's any lesson to be learned here, it's that it takes an awful lot of energy to prevent computer-generated images from looking cold and dull.