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A courier/amateur inventor named Raoul (Adam Goldberg) brings his photographer best friend Emile (Jay Harrington), along on a delivery to a botanical gardens run by a brilliant genetic engineer. While playing with the professor’s various potions, Raoul and Emile accidentally create a monster in the form of a man-sized flea. The monster escapes the gardens and is the terror of Paris until he is discovered by Lucille (Vanessa Paradis), Raoul’s childhood friend/love interest, who performs at the local cabaret. When Lucille realizes the flea is a gentle soul with a beautiful singing voice, she renames him Francœur (‘honest heart’), disguises him in human clothes, and finds him a place in her band. Meanwhile, Maynott (Danny Huston), the police commissioner and Raoul’s rival for Lucille’s affections, vows to capture the creature, unaware of Francœur’s success as an undercover guitarist and singer.

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Animation has been a regular part of the French film scene forever, but has become a vital and extremely creative part of the nations’ cinematic landscape over the last couple of decades. As Hollywood feature animation has turned almost exclusively to big budget, big flash CG movies, French and Belgian equivalents continue to mix and match mediums and aren’t afraid to take artistic chances with more adult subject matter. Recently, French and Belgian animators have churned out the black & white horror anthology Fear(s) of the Dark (directed by Blutch, Charles Burns, Marie Caillou, Pierre di Sciullo, Lorenzo Mattotti, Richard McGuire, 2008), Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud’s coming of age autobiography Persepolis (2007), Sylvain Chomet’s Jacques Tati-inspired The Triplets of Belleville (2003) and The Illusionist (2010), Tomm Moore’s Celtic-inspired The Secret of Kells (2009), Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s To Catch a Thief-inspired A Cat In Paris (2012), and Stéphane Aubier & Vincent Patar’s stop-motion ode to imagination A Town Called Panic (2009). The region’s more state of the art, computer-generated animation has been comparatively less successful. Films like Chris Delaporte & Pascal Pinon’s Kaena: The Prophecy and Christian Volckman’s Renaissance start with grand ideas, but never find satisfying narrative footing and lean too heavily on their technological achievements. Guillaume Ivernel and Arthur Qwak’s 3D animated spin-off of the 2D Dragon Hunters TV series (2008) was a solid attempt at capturing the charm of newer Dreamworks Animation releases, but didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Sadly, the most successful ‘French’ CG cartoon released in the post-millennial era, The Adventures of Tintin, was written by Brits, produced by a Kiwi (through a Hollywood studio), and directed by an American (the indelibly Franco-centric Tale of Desperaux was also a US/UK co-production).

This brings us to A Monster in Paris, the region’s latest attempt at capturing the magic of their 2D animation in state of the art 3D animation (animation further augmented by 3D effects when shown in French theaters). A Monster in Paris was critically well-received, but a box office disappointment for super-producer Luc Besson, who had found some international success in writing and directing a trilogy of Arthur and the Invisibles live-action/CG animation hybrids. The film was co-written and directed by Bibo Bergeron, a French-born animator who cut his teeth on animated Hollywood cartoons as far back as Fievel Goes West and worked his way up through the system as storyboard artist and/or character designer on a wide range of films, including A Goofy Movie, Flushed Away, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, and Bee Movie. He also shares co-director credits on the Dreamworks Animation releases The Road to El Dorado and Shark Tale, but A Monster in Paris (originally released in 2011) represents his first shot as a solo director.

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Bergeron’s film is sort of a companion piece to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Brad Bird’s Ratatouille – in more than just Parisian locales and grown-up-friendly narrative themes. Like Hugo, A Monster in Paris celebrates turn of the century French cinema, mostly through the character Emile, who is a projectionist at the local silent cinema. This connection is more coincidental than it is in Scorsese’s ode to the magic of director Georges Méliès, but Bergeron does imbue his entire film with the stylistic conventions of 1910’s film and stage entertainment – including the joys of cabaret-style music, ala The Triplets of Belleville. Like Ratatouille, A Monster in Paris is largely concentrated around characters, specifically adult relationships. No, not that kind of adult relationships. I’m afraid I didn’t care about Bergeron and co-writer Stéphane Kazandjian’s characters as much as I cared about Bird’s, but I’m certainly impressed with how well-rounded they are and the writing team’s willingness to spread their story over an ensemble gathering, rather than centering it on a single lead – though this approach doesn’t always work, structurally speaking (the early scenes that focus on Emile and Raoul feel unnecessary once Francœur is properly introduced).

The script’s focus on personality and dialogue doesn’t leave a lot of room for proper plotting, which unfortunately does leaves the large sections of the film feeling a bit lackadaisical in terms of momentum. At the same time, the deliberate pacing is usually a gracious match to the particularly feisty character animation. I imagine a lot of younger children will be bored with the lack of action, but I also assume that adult viewers that usually find themselves disinterested in animated entertainment might be surprised by its unique tonal charms. Bergeron and his animators resist the temptation to create a hyper-realistic design aesthetic, opting for a more aggressively cartoonish look, not unlike the Muppet-looking humans of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The characters are long, skinny figures that bounce and stretch as they move in exaggerated motions. The smaller-than-Disney budget shows only in the fact that most of the more incidental characters look generally the same, but so much of this is covered by the strength of the physical designs that the repeating faces rarely stick out as a problematic.

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Shout Factory has been nice enough to release A Monster in Paris with both 3D and 2D 1080p video options, each framed in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. As per the usual, I am still unable to view digital 3D, so this review will pertain specifically to the 2D transfer. The film plays with a couple of different styles throughout – as it opens, it appears like a scratched up, sepia-coloured silent feature, then a misty dream, before moving on to a more natural state – but the basic image is typically plush and colourful. The backgrounds are busy, multi-layered puzzles, which I imagine look great in 3D. Interiors are swimming in soft textures that are smothered in standard definition and the most expansive exteriors have a painted quality that appears mushy on the included DVD copy. Colous are eclectic, though there are set palette themes for most locations and wardrobes. The outdoor sequences place colourful characters in front of largely de-saturated sets and the interiors are moodier, more aggressively saturated. Both styles create poppy colour contrast, free of edge haloes and blending problems. Bergeron casts fogs and other cloudy effects over much of the film to create mood, which, again, I’m sure looks very cool in 3D. Some of the quicker movements look a bit fuzzy, as if I’d turned my set’s digital smoothing option on, but there’s no major digital noise or blocking when the frame is particularly active.

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Shout Factory has, unfortunately, not included A Monster in Paris’ original French language track on this release, opting instead only for the English dub. This isn’t a massive problem, considering the quality of the English dub’s cast, but is disappointing for the sake of completion. It’s always preferable to have access to an original dialogue track. Complaints aside, the English dub sounds pretty great on DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. The English language dialogue also fits the performances shockingly well in both lip-sync and the bouncy quality of the dialogue. The dialogue volume is also appropriately pitched for the most part with the exception of Danny Huston, who sometimes sounds like he was recorded over the phone. The sound design echoes the image quality and turns from lo-fi to hi-fi as the film opens – the muffled, single-channel noise of the would-be silent film is gloriously expanded over the stereo and surround channels to extenuate the ‘real world’ environment. There aren’t really any big, standout aural moments, as even the action sequences are rather quiet, but there’s a lot of soft and subtle ambience peppered throughout the film. Directional effects are well-situated too, especially scenes where Francœur leaps across Parisian rooftops. Some of the track’s noisiest moments are found in composer Matthieu Chedid’s score and Vanessa Paradis & -M-’s songs, though much of the music is at its best when resting gently beneath the action. The bits where characters actually sing are particularly rich and warm with surprising rear channel influences. The songs are pretty good too, by the way, particularly ‘La Seine,’ which builds as the film progresses into a pop-cabaret mini-masterpiece (similar, but not as great as ‘Belleville Rendez-vous,’ which -M- also performed).


Most of the disc space is spent on two versions of the film, so the lack of extras isn’t surprising. They include a trailer and only a trailer.

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A Monster in Paris doesn’t quite match the unusual, character-based charms of Gore Verbinski’s Rango and doesn’t have as much grown-up appeal as Ratatouille, but it’s still a pleasant surprise. It’s also the first genuinely good, entirely CG-animated French film I’ve ever seen. Writer-director Bibo Bergeron hasn’t matched the best Pixar has to offer yet, but he’s certainly made a better film than Bee Movie or Shark Tale. Perhaps his home country is a better place for him to be working from. Shout Factory’s disc looks fantastic (I imagine the 3D transfer follows suit) and sounds very good, especially where music is concerned.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.