Here is – “voici,” I should say — the Parisian high school superhero cartoon series you have been looking for.
“Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir” premiered domestically on Nickelodeon last December, just two months after its French premiere. A second American DVD collection, “Spots On,” is being released Tuesday by Shout Factory’s Shout Kids sub-label, following a first volume in May. While my interest in superheroes is perhaps inversely related to the degree to which they have occupied the culture, my Francophilia is such that I am critical putty in its CGI-animated hands. (And I am no particular fan of CGI animation, either.)
And it’s good — clever, romantic, fun, the way some of us prefer our superhero stories.
Set in a Paris of recognizable spaces and landmarks — including, along with the unavoidable Eiffel Tower, the Hotel de Ville, the Pont des Arts, Notre Dame, art nouveau Metropolitan signs, poster-plastered kiosks and I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid in the forecourt of the Louvre (which gets thanked in the credits) — it is a bouillabaisse of local Gallic detail. The main character’s father is a baker; on parents’ career day, he brings croissants to her class; the supernatural sidekick of another has a taste for Camembert. The authorship of “Sleeping Beauty” is assigned to Charles Perrault and not to Walt Disney. And the DVDs allow you the choice of listening in the original French, which feels classy.
The action is centered among a group of students at whatever they call high school over there, the usual complement of types locally familiar from teenage comedies and Archie comics, and now recognized internationally: spoiled girl, spoiled girl’s lackey, bohemian, jock, nerd, like that. Marinette (Cristina Vee) is the French-Chinese smart girl who takes time off from studies to protect Paris in the guise of Ladybug, a costumed crusader into whom she transforms with the help of a pair of magical earrings. (As is traditional, the battle is for the soul of a single city; there are no field trips to Lyon or Toulouse.)
Marinette has a crush on her classmate Adrien (Bryce Papenbrook), an unspoiled rich kid who moonlights as a model, and like, Marinette, as a superhero, Cat Noir. (That the male hero wears a catsuit, cat ears and a sort of tail is what to American eyes may seem a surprisingly foreign and/or feminine touch.) Although Ladybug and Cat Noir fight as a team, neither suspects the other’s secret identity, a situation complicated by the fact that Marinette has a crush on Adrien and Adrien has a crush on Ladybug. It’s the classic Clark-Lois-Superman triangle, if Lois were also a superhero, too, rather than just a damn fine reporter.
As the “Popeye” cartoons of old, with their predictable progression of conflict-spinach-resolution, every episode of “Miraculous” has a similar outline. A frustrated character is unwittingly converted to thematically appropriate super-powered badness by the interference of Hawk Moth, the supervillain of the piece. A policeman becomes a robocop; a spurned lover a Dark Cupid.
Like Sauron or Voldemort in his middle years, Hawk Moth never leaves his dark aerie but enlists proxies to try to steal the “miraculous” (it’s a noun here, plural “miraculouses”) that enable Marinette and Adrien to become Ladybug and Cat Noir and whose possession will increase his power. Battle is engaged. Invariable catch phrases and ritual poses from our heroes, with Ladybug ever so slightly in charge, lead to order restored.
The characters do have the look of extruded plastic common to CGI cartoons — especially to those operating on a budget. (That also means a Paris oddly devoid of passersby — though full of little French cars.) But within these limits the design is lovely and the animation elegant, and a lot of work has gone into the staging and execution of the action scenes. An episode that plays off horror movie tropes captures the proper, properly cinematic atmosphere. And a car chase through the streets of Paris — in pursuit of an evil mime (yes, a mime, it’s France!) — is the best Paris-based car chase I’ve seen since “Ronin.” Oui! C’est vrai!
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