Something is terrorising Paris. Somewhere up in the belfries and towers lurks an enormous insect that could easily have walked out of a Hollywood horror movie. But this is not a Hollywood movie. It’s French.
So many films have served as love letters to the City of Lights and justifiably so. In recent years, Midnight in Paris, Hugo and Ratatouille provided three very different stories that are united by a nostalgic look at Paris of yesteryear. While each of those movies are lovingly crafted, they’re all outsiders’ takes on a deeply idiosyncratic city; closer to picture postcards rather than detailed portraits. A Monster in Paris doesn’t really push the boat out much further in terms of visuals and locations, but the characters and plotting are eccentric in a way that you would never see in a studio picture… and therein lies the problem.
The film opens in a cinema where Emile, a projectionist day dreams of asking the comely box office attendant on a date. We’re led to believe this is his story until he is swept away by his best friend Raoul, a deliveryman by day and mad inventor by night. Raoul’s recurring gag is that he’s wearing a coat that he insists is not made of hay. Before long, they stumble into a laboratory and encounter a communicative ape who is also a lab assistant. In fact, the titular monster doesn’t really factor into the story for ages, but when he does, he looks to become the main character, sidelining Raoul and Emile with the story of his burgeoning Jazz career.
We’re glossing over some of the plot’s connective tissue, but the story haphazardly flies all over the place. At one point, the film is in danger of developing a love quadrangle that spans age and species. This, fortunately, does not happen. But by creating so many loose plot strands and so many central characters, A Monster in Paris can be quite an uneasy viewing experience for adults. The English-language version also has a distinctly weak voice cast: Vanessa Paradis is good as a sultry lounge singer, but the rest of the actors sound as though they’re improvising half of their lines.
However, we are glossing over Monster’s charms, of which there are many. There are a number of great tunes sprinkled throughout and there is a breezy, innocent tone that will sit well with family audiences. Director Bibo Bergeron looks to be taking cues from the modern masters of animation, with the influence of Sylvain Chomet’s Belleville Rendez-vous seeping into the design and aesthetic while the action sequence near the end of the picture takes a page out of the Hayao Miyazaki playbook.
There is a lot to admire in A Monster in Paris: the makers could easily have tried to make a Shrek-style picture that would play more easily to the international audiences. Instead, they have created something out of the ordinary, something strange. Something distinctly… French.