"The City of Lost Children" is a stunningly surreal fantasy, a fable of longing and danger, of heroic deeds and bravery, set in a brilliantly realized world of its own. It is one of the most audacious, original films of the year.
Not even the weirdness of its greatly gifted French creators Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's 1991 "Delicatessen," a comic post-apocalyptic nightmare in which meat-eaters prey upon each other while vegetarians form an underground resistance movement, prepares you for this new film of theirs, at once more ambitious yet also more easily accessible and involving than their earlier effort.
Perched on pilings in the sea outside a port is an amazing and sinister laboratory/aerie of a distraught scientist named Krank (Daniel Emilfork, he of narrow face and beak-like nose, familiar from countless films) who is rapidly aging because he lacks the capacity to dream. He and his cohorts represent the family at its most dysfunctional.
Attended by the diminutive Miss Bismuth (Mireille Mosse), challenged constantly by the philosopher Irvin (a disembodied brain voiced by Jean-Louis Trintignant) and served by six Clones (Dominique Pinon)--one of whom is convinced that he's the original--and an army (the Cyclops), Krank directs the systematic kidnapping of the children on the nearby harbor. Once in Krank's clutches they're strapped down, their heads encased in some sort of infernal device that allows Krank to invade his little captives' dreams and make them his own.
When the adorable toddler Denree (Joseph Lucien) falls into Krank's clutches, his adoptive brother, a gentle giant named One (Ron Perlman), a street carnival strongman, goes into action, aided by 9-year-old Miette (Judith Vittet), a beautiful, intrepid leader of a gang of orphans.
Jeunet and Caro, who conceived the film 14 years ago, in effect spin a fairy tale celebrating the sacredness of the imagination and the importance of preserving a child's capacity to dream, as One and Miette embark on a series of astonishing adventures and encounters--such as one in a vast gallery filled with blind men hoping they'll be selected to be fitted out with an intricate optical device that allows them to become Cyclops.
A simple, ancient saga of the hero battling evil in order to rescue an innocent captive unfolds within an astounding universe, one conceived as a darkly quaint yet arbitrary mechanism in the manner of many of the animated films of Eastern Europe.
In "The City of Lost Children," allegory melds Jules Verne with "Oliver Twist," for Miette and her pals are in the thrall of the Fagin-like Octopus, the collective name for a pair of comically nasty, aging, sharp-featured Siamese-twin sisters (Genevieve Brunet, Odile Mallet) whose primitive orphanage allows them to turn their charges into little thieves. At the same time the film, set in the late '20s or early '30s, has something of the look of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" with Krank's lab and its wizardly devices possessed of a distinctly Victorian design. The harbor town, in turn, is a red-bricked arched maze that could have been designed by M.C. Escher.
For all the eerie grandeur of this film with its battery of special effects, intricate design (by Caro and Jean Rabasse, true visionaries), Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes and richly atmospheric score by Angelo Badalamenti, Caro and Jeunet never allow its unique dazzle to overwhelm its people. For they are no less creators of their own universe than they are storytellers who inspire the finest, most beautifully shaded performances from their distinctive actors.
As captivating as Perlman and the children are, their bizarre adversaries, who are not so much figures of evil as they are objects of pity, also hold our attention, with Krank recalling "Nosferatu's" epicene Dracula in all his tormented loneliness. So awe-inspiring is "The City of Lost Children" that in describing it you are in danger of forgetting to mention how very funny it so often is.
* MPAA rating: R, for disturbing and grotesque images of violence and menace. Times guidelines: The film is far too intense for small children, suitable only for the most mature and sophisticated older children.
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'The City of Lost Children'
Ron Perlman: One
Daniel Emilfork: Krank
Judith Vittet: Miette
Dominique Pinon: The Clones/The Diver
Denree: Joseph Lucien
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Artistic director Marc Caro. Producer Claudie Ossard. Screenplay by Jeunet & Caro; dialogue by Gilles Adrien. Cinematographer Darius Khondji. Editor Herve Schneid. Costumes Jean-Paul Gaultier. Music Angelo Badalamenti. Set designer Jean Rabasse. Set decorator Aline Bonetto. Digital Special Effects Pitof/Duboi. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379 and South Coast Village Plaza, 1561 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 546-2711.