`City of Lost Children' part of Orpheum series

1995 movie offers something for all

January 21, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Orpheum Film Series at Creative Alliance doesn't often showcase films for the whole family, but one movie bold kids of all ages can love is The City of Lost Children, screening tonight at 8.

It was idiotically rated R back in 1995. But I think if I'd seen it at age 8, I would have been scared, elated and prompted to dive into a movie-going binge. This retro-futuristic phantasmagoria about a mad scientist who steals kids' dreams is all allusion, magically limpid and transformed; it's a gorgeous amalgam of 19th- and 20th-century fantasy.

A mad scientist, Krank (Daniel Emilfork), has been aging prematurely because he's incapable of dreaming. A group of mechanical-eyed thugs supply Krank with city kids for a Frankenstein-like lab on an offshore rig, where he infiltrates their slumber and grabs their dreams for himself.

At the start, Krank's bad guys sneak off with a young boy, Denree (Joseph Lucien), the adopted brother of a sideshow strongman called "One" (Ron Perlman) because he always refers to himself with that indefinite pronoun. Eventually, One teams up with a plucky 9-year-old orphan girl, Miette (Judith Vittet), to rescue Denree. En route, they help topple Krank's tiny empire, which numbers a female dwarf, six scrappy clones, and a brain floating in a preservative-filled aquarium with a still-camera lens for sight and two gramophone horns to speak through (the voice belongs to Jean-Louis Trintignant).

The filmmakers, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, want their pastiche to have the cohesiveness of a fairy tale. Their hyper-inventiveness makes it more like a good whopper: the kind of gimcrack saga a kid concocts to save his hide when an adult threatens to tan it. And on that tall-tale level the film is terrific.

City of Lost Children offers a cascade of uncanny visual and poetic strokes. During a scene with a half-dozen sinister Santas and another of a Christmas party gone rotten, Jeunet and Caro capture the peculiar comic horror that occurs when adults take childhood symbols and use them in bad faith. The allusions to classic and cult movies and books aren't a form of aesthetic upward mobility; they're building blocks for a brave old-new world of fantasy.

And Jeunet and Caro have distinctive signatures like nobody else's. In their version of Rube Goldberg mise en scene, the camera traces a wild parabola of cause and effect that begins with a teardrop and concludes with a dockside conflagration. They're in love with altered states and odd perspectives: Their kickiest closeups are of fleas wielding mini-hypodermics to inject in victims' scalps.

Beyond their cartoon mayhem and torture, these filmmakers are moralists. They end with Denree safe and sound and emitting a satisfying belch - right on a kid's wavelength.

If engaged parents take their families to The City of Lost Children, they'll find hours of ancillary pleasures. See the movie; debate over who liked it more; explain the sources; rent them for the kids.

City of Lost Children screens at 8 tonight at Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave. Tickets are $5. For more information, call 410-276-1651 or go to www.creativealliance.org. The Orpheum Film Series is presented by Baltimore Movie Museum and curated by George Figgs and Alana Roth.

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