I’ve come to learn that when an animated film is distributed by GKIDS, that’s a pretty assured sign of quality. Since 2008, the company has allowed for many smart, independent animated films to be seen in the U.S. You may not recognize the name GKIDS, but you likely know many of the films they have released—including Studio Ghibli films that weren’t released by Disney (The Princess Kaguya and When Marnie Was There most recently) as well as Oscar nominated films like Boy & the World, Song of the Sea, Ernest & Celestine and A Cat in Paris. The filmmakers of that last film, Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli, have returned with Phantom Boy, an intriguing blend of hard-boiled detective thriller, superhero film, and sick kid melodrama. It doesn’t quite blend those aspects together perfectly but it fits in with other GKIDS releases as an enjoyable and artistic film outside of the animation mainstream.
Phantom Boy involves a young boy who discovers he has the supernatural power of leaving his body while going through treatment for a serious illness. While in the hospital, the boy befriends a police detective who suffered a broken leg while hot on the trail of a dangerous mob boss. Using the boy’s strange power, the two begin working together along with a female journalist, to stop the criminal from unleashing a computer virus that would affect all of New York’s systems.
Like A Cat in Paris, Phantom Boy draws from a nontraditional narrative for a kid’s film, with roots in film noir. The crime elements of the film likely make it inappropriate for young children, though there isn’t too much explicit violence. The main baddie, a mob boss who covers his broken face with a mask, is a fun character with a cool design. He’s not over-the-top enough to be a full-on comic book supervillain, but he’s a good mix of dangerous and well-developed. His running joke of trying to tell his tragic origin story works throughout the film, a nice comedic touch that fits with the genre blending tone.
There are a few narrative shortcomings to Phantom Boy that keep it from being an absolute hit. Aside from the “man with a broken face” (as he is credited), the only other standout character is a dog that provides most of the film’s comic relief—and even it is a bit of a throw in character to push the plot along. Both the boy and especially the detective aren’t entirely memorable beside their unusual status in fighting crime. The computer virus subplot is strange, both untrue to its noir roots and rather pointless in the end. The villains are set up to be pretty standard toughs that don’t need any specific large-scale crime to give the film added stakes. The kidnapping of the love interest is enough for the detective (and audience) to be invested.
The film’s artistic style is very similar to A Cat in Paris, more coarse and simple than most ultra-polished animated films we see today. There are moments of absolute beauty, though, especially with the phantom effects that give the film its fantastical elements. Near the end of the film, a specific animation effect is the most emotionally resonant moment that succeeds without being heavy-handed. I wonder if the film would be more interesting if it took a cue from noir and was made in black-and-white. Certainly, most animated films would never consider limiting its visual palette in this way, but given the specific narrative elements of the film, a decision like this may have added a unique element.
Overall, Phantom Boy doesn’t have the dense thematic complexity that many animated films have gone for since Pixar became the industry standard but it is a simply enjoyable alternative. It would likely appeal to more film fans if it pushed harder on its genre interests, though at the expense of its core audience. Although Phantom Boy isn’t one of the best recent releases from GKIDS, it is worth seeing for anyone looking for more independent animation from around the world.