What does it take to be a superhero? A cool costume? A compelling backstory? Extraordinary abilities and access to the best technology contrivance can buy? If you answer yes to any of these then the animated “Phantom Boy” probably isn’t your jam, though its snappy title may fool you at a glance; put together, those two words immediately call to mind the pages of pulp magazines and comic books alike, Lee Falk mixed with Jerry Siegel. But “Phantom Boy” is of a different make than its name suggests. The film’s scope is personal rather than global, and the script pokes fun at the superhero genre while embracing its best merits on a molecular level. Where most superhero movies prioritize surface over substance, the intentions of this film are introspective.
“Phantom Boy” is about the invisible qualities that separate champions from chumps, in which selflessness is the greatest gift a hero can possess (though intangibility comes in handy, too). By dint of its social conscience, the film begins on a natural emotional incline; the story is rooted in intimate human struggles first and public dangers second, marrying one boy’s fight against terminal illness with a parodic take on a boilerplate “city in peril” comic book narrative. The film meets the basic expectations of its genre, but it meets them on its own terms. There is a villain, because there must be, and he is colorful both literally and figuratively, because he must be. He is credited as “L’homme au visage cassé,” the man with a broken face. He’s blessed with a mug that appears to have fallen out of a Cubist painting and hit every angle on the way down.
But if the villain must have a hero, then young Leo (Gaspard Gagnol) is an accidental hero. He’s just a kid. He’s also wrestling with an unspecified but “not nice” illness. When we first meet him, he’s getting ready to check in to the hospital and start his treatments. He doesn’t fit the template for “superhero” to our eyes; better suited to that role is Tanguy (Édouard Baer), a detective styled after cinema’s most beloved rogue cops — John McClane, Martin Riggs, Axel Foley. He’s a pain in his superior’s arse, but he sure looks like the good guy we need to beat the bad guy, except that no sooner does he find The Broken Face’s hideout than he breaks his leg and ends up admitted to the same hospital as Leo, who during his stay has inexplicably gained the power to leave his body and float around New York City for a short amount of time before he’s forced to return.
It’s a great premise for a superhero film, and refreshing for its pared-down scale. “Phantom Boy” deals with big, important plot details, and in that the stakes are large. The Broken Face has set a computer virus upon NYC, and proves its efficacy by temporarily shutting off the power across the five boroughs. (In absolute darkness, The City That Never Sleeps is equally as remarkable as when it’s lighting up the evening skyline.) Obviously, he’s not to be trifled with; he’s sensitive, too, especially when the press writes unflattering notes about him, not unlike a certain other megalomaniacal New Yorker currently running for president. “Phantom Boy” isn’t just about stopping The Broken Face, though. It’s about Leo, burdened with responsibilities that no kid his age should have to bear.
He takes to fighting crime with brio, teaming up with Tanguy and his crush, dogged journalist Mary (Audrey Tautou), to foil The Broken Face’s nefarious schemes, but saving the day is easier for Leo than helplessly watching his family succumb to their own helplessness. So “Phantom Boy” catches Leo between a rock and a hard place. He can bring The Broken Face to justice, but he can’t keep his mother, father, and sister from falling apart. The harder he works at the former, the worse things get with the latter. As the film progresses, Leo is forced to decide what kind of hero he wants to be: the kind that protects the innocent from evil, or the kind that makes a habit of reading to his little sister every night before she goes to sleep.
Incidentally, the film’s aesthetic makes it look exactly like the sort of story he might read to her. It’s drawn in a style that suggests a child’s hand, a story sprung right from the pages of a kids’ book written to impart essential moral lessons to its audience. The look works for the movie, reinforcing its perspective and its tone in the same brushstroke. You get the feeling that directors Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli, last heard from on 2010’s “A Cat in Paris,” want to tell a bedtime story more than they want to reinvent the superhero movie wheel. There is magic in “Phantom Boy,” a healthy dose of fantasticism, and an implicit invitation for the viewer to suspend their disbelief, just as there is in any entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the movie’s magic fantasy is gentle and childlike instead of brawny and authoritarian. Here, might does not make right. Compassion does.
“Phantom Boy” is too keyed into the mechanisms of superhero cinema to divorce itself entirely from it, of course. It’s about a flying ghost boy and a man whose features would make Pablo Picasso beam with a sense of accomplishment; it confronts superheroes directly, even, and in so doing interrogates their purpose in our pop cultural diet. The film gazes inward. But so do films like “The Avengers,” which wonders aloud what superheroes symbolize for the people who worship them. What makes “Phantom Boy” unique isn’t the questions it asks, but the way it asks them and the answers it arrives at. [B+]