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film review

The charisma of Phantom Boy is the depiction of a sick boy as a super-boy.

Superhero? It is a relative term.

In the delightful French animated noir feature Phantom Boy, a preteen named Leo is stricken with a harsh disease. It's "not a nice illness," he tells his little sister. He reads her a story but the escape is his, not hers. And soon he's in the thick of it. From his hospital room, he learns he can astral project – a nifty ability at the best of times, but even better when times are at their worst.

He soars through the New York night freely, but there's a vague time limit set on his out-of-body flights. He must return to his form. Reality's a bummer, and not just for Leo. Also in the hospital is Alex, an injured cop. He's capable, but his loud idiot of a police-chief boss doesn't understand him at all. Alex is a bit grumpy, and initially rebuffs the friendship/worship of Leo, who has a passion for detective novels and wants to be a copper when he grows up. If he grows up.

Phantom Boy – which screens in both its subtitled version and its English-dubbed edition at Toronto's Lightbox – comes from Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, the team behind the Oscar-nominated A Cat in Paris. The hand-drawn visuals are lovely (if idiosyncratic), with the flat artistry a refreshing departure from the lavish animated sameness we see everywhere else these days. It's a blend of styles, but surely The Man With the Broken Face – the descriptively named bad guy – is from Picasso's Dick Tracy period. (There's a story about how The Man With the Broken Face got his name, but we'll get to that later.)

The disfigured villain operates out of the city's docklands with his two goons and an opinionated little dog. It's a small-time operation to be sure, and yet they're able to hold the city hostage with a basic computer-virus ploy. The film's simple plot involves the unlikely teamwork of the supernaturally floating boy, the laid-up cop and a wisecracking Nora Charles-meets-Lois Lane journalist looking for the big scoop. Basically they're out to save the city – perhaps Batman got a better offer from Warner Bros.?

Adults should get a kick out of Phantom Boy's sly humour but the story and the action is for the kids. I wonder if some of the gun play is a little much for the pint-sized, though. Then again, generations have grown up on violent Looney Tunes, and the world is in pretty great shape.

Anyway, the charisma of Phantom Boy is the depiction of a sick boy as a super-boy. We like superheroes that are all too human – Spider-Man and his melodrama, for example – and of course we admire the superheroic acts of mere mortals.

One thing, The Man With the Broken Face never does get to tell us the story he's dying to tell. Too bad for him. Crime doesn't pay. Batman was right.