What a deliriously twisted opening to a wondrous flight of fancy called The City of Lost Children: Like millions of other children around the world, young Denree stays awake late on Christmas Eve awaiting Santa's arrival. Suddenly the tail end of a rope appears at the bottom of the fireplace in Denree's house. The towheaded tyke's eyes open wide in anticipation. A jolly white-bearded man wearing a red suit and bearing a shiny whirligig toy slides down the rope and into Denree's living room. The boy is totally enthralled, his face reflecting the pure joy of a childhood dream come true. But then another Santa arrives, and another, and another, all of them with identical features. Before he knows what's happening, the youngster's dream becomes a nightmare. Half a dozen Santas -- with reindeer -- crowd into Denree's place, drinking from hip flasks, menacing the youngster with scary faces, and allowing the reindeer to soil the floor.
The bad Santas work for the evil Krank, a madman who dwells in a mist-enshrouded offshore lair. Krank suffers from an acute inability to dream, and the resultant sadness and self-pity he experiences age him prematurely. So Krank's six Santa-impersonating henchmen -- all identical clones, it turns out -- constantly bring him a fresh supply of kids like Denree. With the assistance of Irving, a disembodied brain suspended in a tank of glowing green fluid, Krank taps into the the little ones' dreams, invades them, and makes them his own. But Krank's evil nature invariably warps even the sweetest of dreams into screaming horrorscapes, thus depriving him of the peace and youth he craves, and scaring the bejesus out of the youngsters in the process.
When Krank's minions abduct Denree, they have no idea what they are getting into. They incur the wrath of the boy's adopted brother, circus strongman One (Ron Perlman). One has brawn to spare, but he's a little short in the brains department. So he teams up with a gang of rebellious orphans led by the haunted-looking, wise-beyond-her-years Miette. Together One and Miette embark upon a harrowing quest to rescue Denree from Krank's clutches. Along the way they battle sadistic Siamese twin sisters, trained attack fleas, Krank's henchmen, and a community of Cyclopes led by a crazed Jim Jones-like demagogue.
Inventive, imaginative, charming, and thoroughly original, The City of Lost Children hints at film classics such as Frankenstein and Peter Pan, as well as more recent fare like The Neverending Story and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Every frame conjures up movie magic. The writing-directing team responsible for 1991's deliciously offbeat Delicatessen (Frenchmen Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro) have created a masterpiece that feels at once contemporary and as timeless as a fairy tale. Lost Children (in French, with English subtitles) does not fear the dark. This movie about the importance of dreams plays out like one. Sitting through it is akin to taking a vivid trip through the unconscious. Rather than following the typical Hollywood convention of slapping a premise together in a few weeks and rolling the finished product off the assembly line of some high-tech special effects factory like Industrial Light and Magic, Jeunet and Caro spent fourteen years pulling the story together out of the haze of their own imaginations.
The pair let their minds run wild, inventing an elaborately detailed fantasy world that includes eye-popping sets, Jean-Paul Gaultier-designed costumes, and a series of hilarious Rube Goldberg-inspired chains of events. Their audacity rivals -- and perhaps even exceeds -- that of 12 Monkeys's director Terry Gilliam. But the Frenchmen's tone -- anarchic fun and whimsy offsetting dark shadows -- is more audience-friendly than Gilliam's brooding cynicism. (Which is not to suggest that there's anything wrong with cynical movies, only that Jeunet and Caro's vision isn't as bleak as Gilliam's. Lost Children, while appealing to adults, aims to entertain kids as well.) Of course, despite a few American fans who remember him from TV's Beauty and the Beast, Ron Perlman, this film's principal star, doesn't exactly pack 'em in the theaters the way Monkeys's leads Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt do. And while The City of Lost Children may not make as much noise at the box office or in the media as even one of those twelve monkeys, it remains one of the most captivating cinematic magic-carpet rides in years.
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The City of Lost Children.
Written by Gilles Adrien, Marc Caro, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet; directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet; with Ron Perlman, Daniel Emilfork, Judith Vittet, and Dominique Pinon.