In 10 Words or Less
Beautiful visuals and beautiful music, but middling story
Loves: Good animation
Likes: Foreign films, Adam Goldberg
Dislikes: Questionable plotting
Hates: Not getting original audio
Animation has to be the genre where the separation between the big-budget studio output and the small indie productions is the greatest. If your animated movie doesn't have the Disney or Dreamworks label on it, your chances are severely limited, no matter how high the quality. That goes double if you're a foreign film, or if you don't have a big star to help push the movie. So from the outset A Monster in Paris (originally Un Monstre a Paris) had the deck stacked against it, odds which it couldn't overcome. Despite the lack of success and low profile, the film itself is a fun and gorgeously crafted piece of animation.
Borrowing from a few different classic French stories and influences, the film starts as the story of Emile (Jay Harrington, Better Off Dead) and Raoul (Adam Goldberg), a pair of unlikely friends in Paris in the early 20th century. A meek film projectionist, Emile harbors a crush on the theater's ticket-seller Maud (Madeline Zima), while Raoul, an obnoxious inventor/courier, has a repressed interest in local singer Lucille (Vanessa Paradis), who in return cannot stand him. The pair is bumbling, led into misadventures by Raoul's unrestrained nature. One such misadventure takes them to a greenhouse where they accidentally cause a flea to grow to human size. Somehow, in the process, the flea also developed a beautiful singing voice (provided by Sean Lennon), and when not terrorizing the city as a misunderstood roof-leaping monster, taking the name Francoeur, he partners with Lucille in a fantastic nightclub act. His presence is hard to miss though, and soon Emile, Raoul, Lucille and Francoeur are conspiring to avoid egotistical Commissioner Maynott (Danny Huston) and his sidekick investigator Pate (Bob Balaban.)
The film, co-written and directed by Bibo Bergeron (Shark Tale, The Road to El Dorado) is pretty light on plot, as after the first third sets up the story, the film is built around a big chase scene, some musical montages (two of which are the same song done two ways) and a big climactic finale. It all just seems to float a bit, without the characterization, humor or energy of other big animated films. There's not much more to the main characters than what you see on the surface, with the exception of Pate, and there are some things the film asks the viewer to accept without question that just don't work. For instance, the flea grows to human size, but in the process, along with finding his singing voice, he also finds a talent for music and dancing, and grows human teeth, but, for some reason, can't talk. There's also the matter of the film's unusual structure, where a false ending gives way to a few more sort-of finales that are sapped of their impact due to their odd positioning.
On the plus side, the voice acting is solid across the board, with Goldberg playing smarmy with ease and Harrington doing well with his limited role, while Zima and Paradis lend their feminine charms as the love interests, and Huston is excellent as the blustery villain. It would have been nice if the great Catherine O'Hara was given more to do as the manager of Lucille's club, but there's not a lot of laughs across the board. On the other hand, the animation is uniformly outstanding, utilizing a stylized take on the design standards of the period in Paris, that results in each character looking distinctly different from the others (especially a sharp-nosed waiter and the beautiful Lucille.) The film's look is gorgeously cinematic, resulting in some rather impressive frames, led by the beauty of the Parisian cityscape, the intricacy of the Eiffel Tower and the impressively dreamy montages, particularly the first-person retelling of Francoeur's origin to Lennon singing "A Monster in Paris."
As much as the film is powered by the beauty of the animation, the music is so incredibly catchy and gorgeous that it simply takes over the movie whenever it's present (which is less than most would like.) Between Paradis' angelic voice (visualized without subtlety by Lucille's delicate white costume wings) and the songwriting of Matthieu Chedid (a.k.a -M-), most of the songs are evocative and memorable, while Sean Lennon's soft, complementary sound works as Francoeur's singing voice (though French-Canadian-raised Rufus Wainwright probably would have been a perfect choice for the English translation.) When Lucille first sings with the monster, the performance of the bouncy pop song "La Seine and I Caberet" is one of those musical moments that will just stick with you. Unfortunately, that's not the case with the rest of the film, but it's pretty entertaining as you watch it.
Shout! Factory releases A Monster in Paris in a two-disc set, one Blu-Ray and one DVD, which are packed in a standard-width, dual-hubbed Blu-Ray keepcase in a slipcover that repeats the cover art. The Blu-Ray has a mildly animated menu with options to watch the film, select scenes, check out the extras and adjust the set-up. Audio options include English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks, while subtitles are available in English.
The 1080p AVC-encoded transfer (MVC on the 3-D version) sports some very different looks, from a sharp, bright and colorful daytime style to an artistic, somewhat dream-like evening design that can run a bit soft, but it works for the feel of the scenes. When appropriate, the movie boasts an impressive level of fine detail and some very vivid color (the streets of Paris in daylight are particularly elaborate) but overall there's nothing to complain about here, as the transfer is free of any noteable digital distractions. When it comes to the 3-D, A Monster in Paris isn't an in-your-face wow-you kind of film, utilizing the 3-D effect to mostly enhance the depth of the image, which is most evident when the film moves above the city. To be honest, toward the end, I somewhat forgot the film was 3-D, but that also points to the 3-D not being a distraction, so that's a good thing.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track delivers the film quite well, from the strong songs and score to the impressively distinct sound effects and a plethora of well-placed atmospherics, which take full advantage of a dynamic mix to enhance the film's sense of depth (aiding the 3-D presentation.) Dialague is clean and clear throughout, and despite the power of the music, the characters' voices are never buried (again, check out the performance of "La Seine & I" by Lucille and Francoeur and marvel at how many separate sound elements you can pick out without distortion, especially when the fireworks start.) Sadly, we don't have the opportunity to hear what the movie sounds like in its original French or hear the songs of Chedid, who wrote the score and originally sang the part of Francoeur.
Sure, A Monster in Paris isn't a major Disney or Dreamworks release, but you'd expect to get more than just a trailer.
Inside the package there's a DVD copy of the film and a code for digital copy.
The Bottom Line
Like an Aardman film on a lower gear, A Monster in Paris is a fun, beautifully animated film with great music, but the story and energy fall a bit short of the rest of the film's level of quality. The set mirrors this, as it looks and sounds terrific, in 3-D or 2-D, but a severe lack of extras and the fact that the original French audio is not included makes for a big disappointment. Fans of fine animation or even just those who enjoy the music of Chedid, Paradis or Lennon should definitely check this film out.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.