Phantom Boy, the latest animated feature by Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli, takes us to a place many other toons would fear to tread, into the fantasy life of a terminally ill boy. Not surprisingly, if you know Gagnol and Felicioli's work (they made the delightful A Cat in Paris), it's one of the best not-just-for-children animations in theaters this summer — an action-packed, yet kind-hearted adventure featuring an ailing kid who doubles, in his imagination, as an invisible flying hero.
The tale takes place in a strangely Gallic New York City where the faces and architecture seem inspired by Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, or Pablo Picasso. Eleven-year-old Leo (voiced in French by actor Edouard Baer), whose chief pleasure is reading to his little sister Titi, is suddenly hospitalized, perhaps with cancer. To pass the time, he astral-projects himself as the title crime-fighter, flying across the metropolis on the trail of the arch-villain Broken-Face (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who is trying to seize control of the city's public utilities. The juvie crime-stopper is aided by a Parisian-style flic named Lt. Alex Tanguy (Jared Padalecki), also laid up with an injury, and his sweet-natured female accomplice, Mary (Audrey Tautou). Leo's exploits mirror the wanderings of the snoopy feline in the earlier pic, through a maze of alleys, rooftops, and windowsills, beautifully rendered as a Cubist urban wonderland.
As in A Cat in Paris, the narrative is a slender one, more of a hook for the artists/filmmakers to hang their graphic ideas, which are splendid. The only downer is that Leo's imaginary antics physically weaken him. So reality subtly inserts itself into the superhero scenario. One more difference between the European/Asian concept of make-believe and the homegrown type.