By now, the American animation distributor GKids has become such a trusted name that even its lesser releases are a must-see for fans of the medium. Phantom Boy is the follow-up to Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s surprise Academy Award nominee A Cat In Paris, and while it lacks the fleetness of the earlier film, once again the filmmakers bring a design sense and a set of storytelling influences unlike anything happening in feature-length cartoons today. With a visual and narrative style that resembles American cartoonist Richard Sala, Felicioli and Gagnol explore an urban landscape filled with master criminals, wily detectives, intrepid reporters, and supernatural phenomena. Even though it doesn’t all come together thrillingly, Phantom Boy garners a lot of goodwill just for looking and feeling original.
The boy in Phantom Boy is Leo, a preteen New Yorker who, at the start of the film, is hospitalized with an unnamed illness that appears to be either cancer or cancer-adjacent (judging by the fact that Leo has his head shaved when he’s admitted). Not long after he arrives, the hero meets Alex, a brave cop recovering from a crippling on-the-job injury. Around the same time, the boy discovers that he has the power to leave his physical body behind and to float, unseen, throughout the city. Soon Alex and Leo are teaming up from their hospital rooms, remotely working to foil a crime wave masterminded by the masked gangster known as The Man With The Broken Face. Their main ally in this crusade is Mary, an investigative journalist who believes their wild “hunches.”
The colorful checkerboard appearance of the villain’s mask is just one example of how Felicioli and Gagnol defy expectations with Phantom Boy. Though this is a story about killers—which does occasionally erupt into PG-level violence—the overall tone is fairly light and whimsical. One of the movie’s great running gags is that whenever The Man With The Broken Face or any other tough guy tries to flex his muscles to get what he wants, he’s stymied by underlings and adversaries who don’t take his threats too seriously. There’s a lot of exasperated mumbling in Phantom Boy, from fiends and champions alike.
That breezy approach also works against the film, in that the stakes always seem low, even when the fate of an entire city is on the line. Phantom Boy isn’t hilariously campy, and it isn’t grim and gripping. It sort of hovers above those two options—Leo-like—and refuses to give the viewer much to latch onto. Felicioli and Gagnol even shy away from using the image of a sickly child to elicit audience sympathy. Leo has some sweet moments with his parents and his little sister, but nothing that’d make anyone break into Pixar-style sobbing.
Then again, given how formulaic American animation has become—even at Pixar—it’s somewhat refreshing to see a cartoon that isn’t spending every scene trying to make people gasp, laugh, or cry. Nothing about Phantom Boy has been overworked or machine-tested. It’s a wisp of a film, but it’s not easily forgettable, because at the moment there’s so little else out there like it.
This review is of the subtitled French language Phantom Boy; the film will also be available in an English dubbed version.