Here’s a summer movie whose appeal lies in all the ways it flips this season’s blockbusters. Tired of clean and uniform CG animation? This is a hand-crafted film that looks like a Matisse painting in motion. Bored with straightforward superhero spectacles? This is an offbeat detective story about a cancer patient who solves mysteries via astral projection. And the timing with the Ghostbusters remake feels extra pointed, too. In Phantom Boy, it’s the ghosts who actually save New York City.
We follow Leo, a kid who discovers he has an unusual talent while he’s braving chemo therapy. His spirit can detach from his body and fly freely through the city. This “Phantom Boy” is unsure if these flights are merely dreams, though… until he meets Alex, a policeman and fellow patient who’s also having out-of-body experiences after being put in the hospital after a nasty run-in with some goons while on the trail of a criminal mastermind.
A summary can’t quite convey the magical realist tone here. There’s a dreamy matter-of-factness as these two explore the boundaries of whatever magic binds them. The typical “Is this happening?!” questions that are usually there just to assuage suspension-of-disbelief are refreshingly left un-raised. This unlikely duo teams up to foil a grandiose plot to infect New York with a skull-faced computer virus–because why on Earth wouldn’t they?
Alex calls on Mary, an investigative journalist, to act as his proxy in scouring an underworld crowded with colorful contacts who might be half Chester Gould and half Coen Brothers. Since Leo can pass through walls in his spirit form, he has access to any corner of the city. So, the three act in concert for some inventive scenes that feel like Rear Window by way of Beetlejuice. Alex directs Mary into criminal hideouts via phone, while an invisible Leo flies ahead of her, reporting his findings to Alex in turn. Their sort-of seances can’t go on for too long, however. The farther Leo flies away from his body, the greater the risk of him totally dematerializing into the ectoplasmic ether.
There’s legitimate tension in these scenes of paranormal investigation. Not only could Mary be caught by the bad guys, Leo might also fade away permanently. However, the film finds a mischievous delight in shifting tones, leaving you unsure of what to expect from scene to scene.
This especially applies to the big boss Alex pursues–a supervillain known as “the Face” who has the look of a cubist painting. And while he can be deadly, most often he’s asking to be taken seriously. When he proclaims himself King of New York and threatens to infect the city, he keeps insisting he’ll actually do it, as if there’s real doubt he’ll follow through on his threats. When he asks enemies if they’re curious “how I got these scars,” his question’s cut off or ignored, because nobody really cares to know.
This film comes from Jean-Loup Felicioli & Alain Gagnol, the directors behind A Cat in Paris, and often feels like a response to the legion of superhero flicks whose ranks have so increased. The plot even bookends with excerpts from a story book about another foppish super-villain.
However, Phantom Boy isn’t a parody of the genre, nor a critique, so much as it’s an effort in changing up the usual tropes. Think Deadpool or Harley Quinn are atypical superheroes? Meet this sick child who solves crimes from a hospital bed. It doesn’t fit neatly into any category it crosses over into, and that’s seemingly by design. It’s a gritty noir at certain times, and a heartwarming family cartoon at others. It’s a wonderful square peg of a film, if ever there was one.
Phantom Boy‘s hiting the art house circuit, now. Will you be checking out? Let us know what you think in the talkback
Image Credits: GKids