Imagine the Japanese unquiet-ghost anthology Kwaidan cross-bred with The Neverending Story and directed by Terry Gilliam. That’s the gist of The Great Yokai War, an honest-to-god children’s movie from the chameleonic Japanese genre director Takashi Miike. In a little more than two hours, Miike runs roughshod over centuries of Japanese folk tales, spinning a yarn that has a young boy, Tadashi, chosen as the rider of the Kirin — sort of a cross between a dragon and a unicorn, but also, as the film eventually reminds us, a tasty Japanese brew. He finds himself drawn into the titular war of the Yokai, Japanese spirits that take many radically different forms.
I hate to suggest that viewers should check their brains at the door to enjoy a movie, but I’m afraid that sentiment serves both as a warning and a recommendation where The Fifth Element is concerned.
The best poster art of 1995 is unquestionably the composite still featured on ads for The City of Lost Children, showing a muscular redheaded man purposefully rowing a boat across a sea peppered with floating mines. At the bow of the vessel, a younger girl, perhaps 10 years old, looks back over her shoulder almost balefully. They’re en route to what looks like a cross between a mist-shrouded palace and an oil rig, matte painted in silhouette against the moonrise. It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but this one teases, offering glimpses of a story that exists in the imagination, and is not necessarily dependent on the “reality” established by the film it’s meant to promote.
That picture isn’t taken directly from the film, but it may as well be. Its evocative power is indicative of the real strengths of the filmmaking duo of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. These two headstrong fantasists cut their teeth on music videos and television commercials before settling in to make the much-admired Delicatessen (1991), a black European comedy about cannibalism. Accordingly, American audiences had their first real exposure to Jeunet and Caro when art houses nationwide were blitzed with that film’s trailer—a set piece drawn straight from the movie itself, and involving the apparent rhythms of lovemaking in an apartment building from hell and its impact on everyday life in adjacent rooms. To this day, even movie fans who never saw the actual movie still harbor vivid memories of seeing the brilliantly entertaining trailer to Delicatessen.
That mastery of imagery and montage is what keeps Jeunet and Caro’s newest film from being a mere clutter of dazzling images. The City of Lost Children is something of a fable set in a city in either the future or an alternate reality. The movie has to do with a scientist named Krank (Daniel Emilfork), who is aging prematurely because he lacks the ability to dream. Fighting to reverse the aging process, he sends his blind minions out to kidnap the city’s most potent dreamers—the children—and bring them back so he can invade the children’s dreams and make them his own. Circus strongman One (Ron Perlman, the beefy guy from the posters) gets involved when his adopted brother, little Denree (Joseph Lucien), is abducted by the Cyclops, who see the world through one electronic eye and do Krank’s bidding. Events turn, and One teams up with the orphan Miette (Judith Vittet) on a mission to invade Krank’s laboratory and rescue his beloved brother. The other characters in the laboratory include Krank’s assistant, Miss Bismuth (Mireille Mosse), a disembodied talking brain floating in a fish tank (given witty, world-weary voice by Jean-Louis Trintignant), and a battalion of clones (all of them played by Dominique Pinon).
The actors are more than up to the challenge of breathing life into the concept. Perlman, a busy actor whose credits include The Name of the Rose, Romeo is Bleeding, and last year’s Cronos, is entirely credible as the simple strong man driven to his quest by love for a child. Daniel Emilfork’s Krank is a bizarre yet pathetic creation, and our distate for his persona is mitigated by our understanding of his desperation (after all, we’re the ones who paid money to visit someone else’s dream for an hour or two). And whether it’s Vittet playing an orphan who’s become wise and jaded beyond her years, or Lucien as the toddler who’s mostly unfazed by the pyrotechnics that have the other kids screaming, the children here defy the Hollywood standard of cinematic children who are by turns cutesy pies or obnoxious hams. Since the children are the film’s center, the metaphorical imaginative core of a society that has perhaps forgotten the value of its dreams, it’s reassuring that the actors give unmannered performances that put the histrionic antics of celebrity brats like Macauley Culkin in proper perspective.
Aided and abetted by Jean-Paul Gaultier’s costuming, Caro’s art direction ensures that this city truly is something to behold, although our visit is fragmented so that we have little opportunity to get a sense for a whole environment. For the most part, Caro and Jeunet create their nightmare world by stacking their most striking visuals on top of one another in a shot-by-shot montage that amplifies the chaos. But the real show-stoppers are the sequences that stretch the film’s tightly constrained sense of location while staying within the episodic format (the best involves a spider’s web, a shipwreck, and a healthy sense of wonder), though even that doesn’t shake the constant feeling that we’re watching master craftsmen at work, not peeking into another universe.
But when they work, oh boy, do they work. Jeunet and Caro have a keen sense of their characters, from the lead roles all the way down to the bit parts, and the crucial dream sequences are marvelously surreal, right down to the accompanying sound mix. (It’s fitting that Sony is releasing this one just before Christmas, because Santa figures in a couple of the dreams, for better or for worse.) Angelo Badalamenti’s music is surprisingly effective throughout, and Miette’s final nightmare is nothing short of breathtaking. The film contains a remarkable number of digital-effects shots, and indeed, is surprisingly reliant on technical wizardry, whether it’s allowing Pinon to play six different parts on-screen at the same time, or enabling show-stopping close-ups of Fleakins, the bug who offers up a flea’s-eye view of the world before shooting characters up with a strange poison. The rich, shadowy cinematography, which is a key part of the weirdness at work here, is by Darius Khondji, who shot Delicatessen but also, probably more famously, this year’s Hollywood hit, Se7en.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, there’s a story that needs to be told, and the one here is just a little humdrum. For all its whacked-out creativity, The City of Lost Children is a bit short on ideas for what to do with itself. The dream thievery is reduced to a child-in-peril excuse to get our obligatory hero into the laboratory, and Krank’s invasion of dreams isn’t even fully distinguished from what we might expect from a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel. And at the climax, we’re treated to a pretty rote escape-from-the-madman routine that ends in a big explosion a la any number of American action movies. Would that a movie this wondrous weren’t simultaneously so formulaic.
I’d hate to discourage any fan of the surreal from buying a ticket, since it’s a truly impressive piece of work. Still, something very important is missing. It’s all well and good to break out all the wide-angle lenses, run amok with the set design, and frighten a few children, but I do wish there was a little more light at the end of the tunnel. It seems that Jeunet and Caro are very satisfied with what they have wrought, but it’s hard to experience the film on a very personal level, because we’re never given the sense that anything real is at stake, or that there’s anything in the rather unpleasant world presented to us that’s really worth fighting for. For all their formidable skills, Jeunet & Caro need to balance all of the nightmare and grimace with just a little bit of hope and magic. I’m rooting for them to deliver the goods next time—but I’m not sure they have it in them.