Today I watched Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s The City of Lost Children (1995)
Set in an unnamed port city shrouded in eternal night, this film tells the story of a mas scientist who lives on a rig off the shore who kidnaps children to steal their dreams. In the city lives a carnival strongman names One, played by Ron Perlman, an orphan from his carnival who he was attached too is one of the kids taken to the rig. One teams up with an orphan thief named Miette to follow the clues leading them out to the rig and the dream stealing machine. Through this they must contend with steampunk eye cults, two women who run an orphan mafia, black carnival magic, and a strange diver who may hold the secrets to the rig and it’s mad inhabitants.
This fantastical tale is told with wonderfully evocative style, the strange city is alive with malignant shadows and bizarre characters. It channels the strange and arcane technologies of steampunk and it’s design aesthetics derived from the uglier elements of the industrial revolution. It also has that genre’s skepticism of technology; for all the advancements made by the villains, they are still left trying to find their humanity. Classism is another strong element of this genre and while the movie never outright confronts it, the theme is pervasive in the world design. The powerful mad scientist lives in opulence while the city is one of squalor and desperation.
The one thing I think holds this film back is a rather slow pace. The adventure of the story is padded out with long character building scenes and sequences that just seemed to take a few moments too long. I felt the lackadaisical pace was unnecessary as well, to me the characters and locations established themselves well and did not need all the extra time this film allots to development. Minor plot elements like One’s backstory didn’t add anything for me and the pace was just too slow.
That being said, this is still a pretty great film. It blends macabre comedy and dark, urban steampunk adventure together into a very satisfying film. Ron Perlman delivers an excellent performance and surprisingly, the numerous child actors also do good jobs with their material. The film has boundless creativity and is definitely worth a watch, only the pacing gets in the way of it being a truly wonderful experience. 4/5