It’s no secret 2016 has not been a great year for superhero movies. Most of them have been bloated, poorly written, and edited with weakly developed characters. It was with this in mind that I found special glee in the latest GKIDS offering, Phantom Boy. With its stunning artistry, clever premise, and fun characters, Phantom Boy is one of the best superhero movies of the year.
Phantom Boy is from Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, who are the team behind the Academy Award nominated A Cat in Paris. And while I don’t think Phantom Boy is quite as good, it is still a strong piece of work.
It tells the story of an 11 year old boy named Leo who is stuck sick in a hospital, dreaming of becoming a police officer someday. One night he is yearning for the outside when his spirit separates from his body and flies outside of the hospital.
At the same time, a cop named Alex is in the hospital injured from a run-in with a mob boss named The Man With The Broken Face. Alex has intuitions about Broken Face but his boss and the mayor won’t listen to him. Then he meets Leo and they agree to work together using Leo’s phantom powers to spy on the bad guys. However, they must be careful because the phantom can only be away from Leo for so long or he could die.
There is also a woman named Mary who starts investigating Broken Face and is kind of the human eyes for Alex and Leo. Leo’s parents, sister, and Broken Face’s stupid goons all figure into the story.
Broken Face is not the most original villain concept. He is right out of Dick Tracy or other over the top comedic mobster villains. However, the dialogue is really funny and his design looks like something Picasso would have come up with. I particularly loved a line where he says, “If I was some silly comic book villain, I’d be all to willing to tell you the password except I’m not that stupid.” Touché!
There’s another funny bit where Broken Face tries to tell people how his face got messed up but he keeps getting interrupted. This was a funny refute to the tired villain origin story in many comic book films.
The animation in Phantom Boy is stunning and, after seeing these artists interpret Paris, it was cool to see their take on New York. When Leo is a ghost, there is a sense of freedom and lightness of being that is a nice contrast to the sadness of the hospital. I loved the cubism feel to everything, and the use of light and shadows to convey tone. The ceilings are often on angles, and everything is made up of geometric shapes like triangles and squares. There is also a definite film noir feel, which gives a haunting mood to the film.
But, unlike many superhero films, it doesn’t rely on visuals alone. The story isn’t anything groundbreaking but it is executed well and, at under 90 minutes, is very enjoyable to watch (most superhero movies these days can’t tell the entire story in 2 1/2 hours).
There are some tense scenes and Broken Face can be scary. They also have a brief joke involving a strip club where you see legs of dancers that might be bothersome for parents but I almost forgot it was there it’s so brief. Broken Face’s henchmen have a lot of nice slapstick comedy, and overall the tone is light and humorous with darker undertones.
I guess if I am going to fault Phantom Boy: it isn’t quite as rich in its characters as A Cat in Paris. Phantom Boy has clever takes on familiar story beats. A Cat in Paris, on the other hand, really surprised me with the Burglar and the Mother character. Both surprised me with their depth and unexpected choices. In Phantom Boy the characters are more rote and predictable but still very enjoyable. Both films are well done but I think A Cat in Paris is a little bit stronger.
I can guarantee you an American animated studio would have milked Leo’s sickness for corny emotion where this film earns its emotional moments. The ending felt perfect for the journey Leo had been on.
The voice-work is done well with Audrey Tautou, Fred Armisen, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jared Padalecki, Marcus D’Angelo, Melissa Disney and Dana Snyder all in the dubbing. The music by Serge Besset is pitch perfect for this type of story.
Phantom Boy is a visual delight but also a throwback to a simple superhero story before cinematic universes changed everything. It’s just an enjoyable old fashioned superhero movie with a villain, hero and a crime to help save people from. Imagine that! It is so refreshing to see a stand alone superhero movie with no unnecessary world building and a solid self-contained story.
If you can find it near you, give it a watch.
Here is the trailer for Phantom Boy:
Edited by: Kajsa Rain Forden