A Monster in Paris is a film that’s a bit too thin in some dimensions and too full in others, producing something that’s moderately satisfying but not truly outstanding in either good or bad ways. The most noteworthy thing about this movie is probably its modest reported budget of €25 million (about $32.8M at current exchange rates), which shows that the costs of producing quality CGI animation are being driven down even as players like Pixar and DreamWorks Animation are spending more than triple that amount on their films (and still more if you start taking marketing costs into consideration). However, even if A Monster in Paris yields solid, reasonably enjoyable family entertainment, I’d also say that even the leanest films from Pixar or DreamWorks would end up being more satisfying overall.
A Monster in Paris is set in Paris in 1910, as the Seine River flooded the streets and wrought havoc as Parisians hastily erected barriers and makeshift elevated bridges to navigate water than ran up to 20 feet deep. The odd couple leads of the movie are Raoul (voiced by Adam Goldberg), a tall, thin, fast-talking courier and inventor; and his friend Emile (Jay Harrington), a short, shy movie projectionist. While running a delivery to a scientist’s laboratory, Raoul and Emile accidentally mix a singing tonic and unstable super fertilizer to create a seven-foot tall flea who leaps away into the night. The frightening looking but kind-hearted flea eventually makes his way to L’Oiseau Rare, a club run by the beautiful singer Lucille (Vanessa Paradis) who is the first to see past the flea’s frightening exterior and learn of his prodigious musical gifts (provided via vocals by Sean Lennon). Lucille dubs the flea Francoeur and adopts him into her act to great success. Unfortunately, reports of the monster roaming Paris have attracted the attention of the vainglorious police commissioner Maynott (Danny Huston), who opts to use public panic to divert attention away from his incompetent handling of the floods.
The musical numbers are the best part of A Monster in Paris, especially Francoeur’s stage debut with Lucille. The song “La Seine and I” is introduced earlier in the film, but feels vaguely unsatisfying when Lucille sings it solo. The numerous small changes during the reprise with Francoeur make the song infinitely more enjoyable and catchy, serving as a terrific visual and auditory shorthand to communicate the positive effect Francoeur has on those around him. When Francoeur joins Lucille on stage, we are treated to a beautifully choreographed and filmed song-and-dance number that turns into a delightfully realized flight of fancy where animation may be the only medium that could truly keep up. This one scene is very nearly worth the price of admission alone, and if the rest of the songs don’t quite match up, it’s only because this one scene sets the bar so very high.
However, the rest of the movie doesn’t really manage to rise much further above the merely competent. The major problem with A Monster in Paris may be evident even from the plot synopsis: there’s just a bit too much being packed into the movie’s 90-minute running time. As a result, none of the plot elements or characters achieve much depth and the whole film feels less focused than it needs to be. The movie recycles “Beauty and the Beast,” misunderstood monster, and romantic comedy themes without managing to make any formula feel terribly new. Only Lucille can understand the sensitive creature under Francoeur’s monstrous exterior, and of course Raoul and Lucille are destined to fall in love when an early scene establishes that they can’t stand each other. Emile is a sympathetic character, especially with his silent crush on his ticket taker Maud (Madeline Zima), but this particular plot thread is clichéd and has surprisingly little bearing on the movie. There’s a smarter-than-he-should-be baboon named Charles who is the unseen scientist’s assistant, and his gag of communicating through surprisingly convenient flashcards would be funnier if he were used more regularly in this movie and if Aardman’s recent The Pirates: Band of Misfits didn’t do the same gag much more memorably. The movie’s pacing is also off: after taking a bit too long to establish its multiple plot threads, everything is wrapped up swiftly through an extended chase sequence in Paris’ flooded streets, which makes the three additional endings sprinkled throughout the end credits look less like wrapping up loose ends and more like disorganized storytelling. The movie executes everything reasonably well, but the whole ends up feeling a little too slapdash and noticeably less than the sum of its parts.
A Monster in Paris comes in a Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, with a digital download copy (iTunes compatible) thrown in for good measure. The release actually has only 2 discs; I presume that the Blu-ray 3D and regular Blu-ray versions fit on the same disc thanks to the short running time, but I don’t have a 3D television set so I can’t comment on that transfer. The standard Blu-ray brings out the movie’s somewhat muted color palette and stylish turn-of-the-century design work beautifully, and the 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack is equally excellent. Unfortunately, the movie only comes with the English soundtrack and does not include a French soundtrack (even if it’s not entirely clear to me which is the film’s native language, given the slightly contradictory accounts from director Bibo Bergeron and actor Vanessa Paradis in the article linked above). It’s not the first time an original language soundtrack was excluded on a Shout! Kids release, although I suspect the rights may have never been on the table and the expected audience of kids won’t (or possibly can’t) read subtitles. Still, even though the exclusion of a French soundtrack is disappointing, it doesn’t negatively impact the movie. It looks like lip sync was re-rendered for the English dub and the translation sounds fine. I was a bit thrown off by the mixture of accents in the English dub, mixing Vanessa Pardis’ French lilt with Adam Goldberg’s American twang and slight British inflections in other characters (which means that every character seems pronounce “Paris” differently — a minor but niggling little annoyance). Other than the plethora of formats, the only bonus feature on these discs is a trailer, so the absence of more substantial bonuses is another disappointment.
A Monster in Paris is a good movie, and one that’s still worth at least one look, despite its flaws and the slightly disappointing home video release. As with the recent Adventures in Zambezia, the story of the budget may be the real point of interest, with another foreign studio proving itself capable of producing quality comparable to the big Hollywood players at orders of magnitude less cost, although Zambezia is a more satisfying movie overall.