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Review: French animated ‘Dilili in Paris’ abandons its appealing protagonist in uncanny valley

‘Dilili in Paris’
A scene from the animated film “Dilili in Paris.”
(Samuel Goldwyn Films)

A well-intentioned bid to corral feminism and Francophilic cultural history into a Jules Verne-ish child’s adventure, veteran animator Michael Ocelot’s La Belle Epoque-set feature “Dilili in Paris” is instead an awkward misfire, the more regrettably so for showcasing a kind, smart and brave mixed-race girl from New Caledonia as its young protagonist.

Courteous, inquisitive Dilili — a stowaway who performs in a colonial-themed “living” exhibit about the Kanak people — befriends Orel, a delivery boy, and together the pair, with the help of soprano great Emma Calve, investigate a spate of child abductions by a mysterious sect with the misogynistic appellation the Male-Masters.

Orel seems to know everyone who’s anyone in Paris — Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, Picasso, Proust, Toulouse-Lautrec — which turns the detective tale into a kid-friendly, educational meet-and-greet of the era’s artistic/scientific greats, and a detail-rich tour of the city’s cultural landmarks (Montmartre, the Moulin Rouge), rendered as colorfully photorealistic backdrops. But the flatly visualized characters and tinny, stiff English-language voice performances are busts, often creating the paradoxical vibe of a cartoon with an uncanny-valley problem, as if you were watching the rough specs for an animatronic theme-park installation.

Ocelot’s timely message of can-do female empowerment wrapped in a “Handmaid’s Tale”-by-way-of-Gaston Leroux tale of paternalistic oppression becomes a lost opportunity, as is Dilili herself, who never quite transitions from appealing construct to beguiling heroine.

'Dilili in Paris'
Rated: PG, for thematic material throughout, some language, peril and brief smoking

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Starts Oct. 4, Laemmle Glendale; also on VOD
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