There ain't no fleas on Judge Erich Asperschlager.
"She's resplendent, so confident / La Seine, La Seine, La Seine"
Although technology has made CGI animation easier, it seems harder than ever to find serious cartoon contenders to the movies put out by the top animation studios. If you're looking for family friendly cartoons the direct-to-DVD market is choked with low-budget flicks, many of which are shameless rip-offs with names that sound like popular movies.
You'd be forgiven, then, for assuming the worst about A Monster in Paris, which comes not from Pixar or DreamWorks but from EuropaCorp, a French studio co-founded by director Luc Besson. A Monster in Paris is produced by Besson—of The Fifth Element and Taken fame—and co-written/directed by Bibo Bergeron, who made Shark Tale. Its English voice cast includes Adam Goldberg, Bob Balaban, Catherine O'Hara, and Sean Lennon. Despite the film's odd pedigree, it rises above the CG riffraff as an impressive middle tier release.
Facts of the Case
Set amidst the flooding of the Seine in 1910, A Monster in Paris is the story of a projectionist named Emile (Jay Harrington, Better Off Ted) and his inventor friend Raoul (Adam Goldberg, Saving Private Ryan), who stumble on a scientist's lab where they cause an accident that turns a flea on a monkey's back into a 7 foot "monster" that runs around Paris. While the police search for the creature at the behest of the corrupt Commissioner Maynott (Danny Huston, The Aviator)—who sees the hunt as a way to distract the flooded populace—the flea finds a home at a local theater, where he is found by cabaret singer Lucille (Vanessa Paradis, Heartbreaker). Although frightened at first, Lucille discovers that the creature, who she names Francoeur (Sean Lennon), has a gentle heart and a lovely singing voice. When the Commissioner comes sniffing around, Lucile enlists Emile and Raoul to help protect her new friend.
A Monster in Paris is a charming movie that will probably have a tough time finding an American audience. It's not flashy, there are no Pixar-style big name actors, and the closest thing it has to a cuddly mascot is a flea the size of an NBA point guard. The message of self-reliance and acceptance isn't new, certain characters get short shrift as the story progresses, and the love stories feel forced. I give the movie credit, though, for coming up with an original story that isn't based on something else. A Monster in Paris didn't come from a popular French children's book; it isn't a sequel; it doesn't reimagine a classic folk tale; and it isn't based on licensed characters. If you follow kids' movies at all, you know how rare that is.
Also to its credit, A Monster in Paris is free of annoying pop culture references. I'm sure there are people who love referential non-sequitur humor but I don't ask those folks over for movie night. Stupid puns and shoehorned slang are cheap. It's an easy way to thrill kids, alienate parents, and ensure that your movie will be irrelevant in six months. A Monster in Paris doesn't do any of that.
Another way the film sets itself apart from most kids' fare are its songs. The plot revolves around the discovery that Francoeur loves music, clumsily attributed to a singing spray in the same lab as the growth potion that created the monster. Lucille changes her mind about the creature when she hears him sing a mournful ballad. She takes him in and he later joins her onstage—disguised in a white hat, coat, and mask—and livens up her signature tune "La Seine and I." The film isn't a musical in the Disney tradition, but music is hugely important to the plot and the atmosphere. The songs weren't written to be played on repeat on road trips. They are beautiful songs with Parisian flavor that fit the time period and mood of the story. It doesn't hurt that they cast accomplished musicians in the main singing roles. In the French language version, Un monstre à Paris, Francoeur is played by singer-songwriter Matthieu Chedid (known by his stage name, -M-), who wrote the music for the film. In the English version, the monster is sung by Sean "Yes, that Lennon" Lennon. In both versions, Lucille is played by the popular French singer/model Vanessa Paradis. Their duets are highlights of the film.
A note to parents reading this review: A Monster in Paris is rated PG. The film has a few scenes of Francoeur startling folks who don't know he's a gentle giant, but those moments are no scarier than similar scenes in Disney or Pixar movies. The rating has more to do with the oddly violent finale, in which the villain threatens our heros with a gun. Lest you think the rating is a matter of European oversensitivity, the peril is jarring enough that I'd think twice about letting my young daughter watch all the way to the end.
From what I've read, A Monster in Paris was released first in France, which seems strange because the characters' mouths clearly sync up with the English voices in this stateside Blu-ray release, courtesy of Shout! Factory. This set includes four versions of the film: standard Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, DVD, and a digital copy. Whatever your setup, Shout! has you covered. The 1.85:1 1080p hi-def transfer is sharp, with solid detail and color saturation. It doesn't quite match the best modern CGI movies, but it's pretty darn close. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is just as impressive, scattering sound effects and music around all of the speakers to make for an active surround mix. All that's missing—for some strange reason—is the original French audio track.
A Monster in Paris (Blu-ray) comes with lots of ways to watch the film, but no extras. C'est la vie.
A Monster in Paris is a bit too scattered and simple to compete with the best CGI family films, but it rises above the animated pretenders with an original story and wonderful music. Shout! Factory has done right by the film on this side of the Atlantic, giving American viewers multiple ways to watch it. It's almost enough to ignore the complete lack of bonus features.
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