With a film like Alex’s second contribution, “The City of Lost Children“, how can one not show the timeless MST3K short “Johnny at the Fair”? It’s a moral imperative, because, of course, Johnny is a child, and Johnny gets lost.
You should watch it, because it’s only like 8 minutes, and if you don’t, you’ll never understand why “Sorry, Dad!” could be so very funny.
The 1995 feature presentation was directed by the duo of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet between their collaboration on “Delicatessen” and Jeunet’s turn at Amélie. It is every bit as bizarre and visually-fulfilling (though perhaps a bit on the dark side, colorwise) as those two films.
The movie opens with a Christmas scene that starts perfectly normally, with a child watching Santa come down the chimney to deliver him a present, but which gradually goes nightmarish as more and more Santas arrive, creepy reindeer poop on the carpet, and the camera goes into constant fun-house mirror mode.
And nightmare indeed it is – the dream of a young child which is being stolen by Krank, a mad scientist who lacks both a conscience and the ability to dream for himself. Krank, you see, was himself created by another (now long gone) mad scientist, and like any good mad scientist’s creation, he can’t come without any flaws. So Krank has set himself up a little cottage industry of kidnapping children and stealing their dreams, but his own creation’s flaw is that the dreams only come out as nightmares. Bummer, dude.
Krank is not alone. He is accompanied by six clones (flaws: narcolepsy, primogeniture obsessions), a tiny woman (flaws: dwarfism, allergic to spearguns)…
…and a brain in a tank named Uncle Irvin (flaws: has a $500 per week Alka-Seltzer habit, makes everybody call him “uncle” even though he’s just some creepy guy who lives down the street). Of the bunch, Krank appears to be the only one who’s truly evil. The rest are more hapless henchmen (or in the case of Irvin, not exactly in a position to take a stand against him).
Krank gets his kiddie supply from the creepy cult of the Cyclops, which consists of blind members (whether congenitally or ritually isn’t exactly clear) who graduate to a single night-vision cyborg eye presumably once they’ve given over their entire life’s savings. Which, when you compare it to Scientology’s revelations of the mysteries of Xenu, really isn’t that bad of a deal. Of course, the night vision goggle has to come from somewhere, and it turns out that they’re being manufactured by Krank and his clones in exchange for the blackmarket stolen children.
Everything is going just swimmingly (at least from a Laissez-faire capitalism point of view) until the Cyclopeans steal the always-eating Denree. Denree, you see, is the “little brother” of One, a carnival strongman with a heart of gold. One isn’t terribly smart, and he speaks in broken French. Though, to be fair, he’s called “One” and not “Une”, so perhaps he’s just a normal-IQ American ex-pat. (Q: How can you tell the difference between a French moron and a regular American? A: The American doesn’t care whether or not the Germans prefer to march in the shade.)
One sets off to rescue Denree. (In the subtitles, one is not always certain whether One is talking about himself, or simply using the passive voice.) Soon thereafter, One enlists the help of Miette, an urchin girl who is caught up in an organized street-thievery ring, because that’s what you do in a world that doesn’t appear to actually have any honest professions.
Of course, this doesn’t really sit very well with The Octopus, who runs the urchin thieves. The Octopus is a bizarre set of twins conjoined at one leg, so really sheshe’s a Heptapus, but aside from me, who’s counting?
Their pursuit of Miette and One is mediated by a lackey with a really cool flea injection system which puts mind-control serum into the bloodstream of bite victims, after which they can be controlled by the sound of a hand organ. Of course, the hand organ only plays one song, so it’s not quite clear how the subtleties of behavioral control are brought about.
At any rate, the Octopus are eventually brought down by their own flea juice, and Miette is at one point rescued by a crazy – even insane – undersea diver who looks a whole lot like the narcoleptic clones.
It turns out that he’s the inventor of the entire dreamstealing crew, though he has lost his memory of his betrayal and ocean-dumping by Krank and the tiny woman. Did I mention that the Krank crew lives on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean? Well, they do, and the approach is guarded by mines. But, with the unwitting help of one of the clones, Uncle Irvin is able to capture the green phosphorescent mist of a child’s dream in a metal cylinder, which is released into the ocean and naturally finds its way just to the inventor and Miette, restoring the inventor’s memory and informing Miette of how to find a map that shows the way through the minefield.
Similar to the hand organ, it’s not entirely clear how the child’s dream is able to implant these wildly different and completely non-dreamlike thoughts, but with our disbelief fully suspended anyway, what’s the difference?
So everybody paddles (or aqualungs it) out to the oil rig, and the crazy inventor straps it up with explosives while One and Miette head off to rescue Denree. It turns out that Denree is hooked up to the dream-stealing machine at the time, so Miette has to enter the dream world to save him (why of course, that makes perfect…no, actually it doesn’t really make much sense at all). Miette succeeds, Krank and the tiny woman end up dead, and two rowboats escape the exploding rig, one holding One, Miette, Denree, and all the other stolen children, and the other holding the clones and Uncle Irvin. The inventor kinda gets caught up in his own explosives, so he doesn’t make the return trip, but that’s OK, as he had really only graduated from insane to functionally insane and the whole thing was basically his own fault anyway. The end.
For imagination, this movie gets a 10. For visualization, it gets a 10. For plot, it gets like a 2.5. Coincidences pile up on each other so fast and furious that even Rube Goldberg (who would have approved of the Octopus’ death scene) would have to dismiss the plot as untenable. But in the end, if the good movie/bad movie judgment lies in a struggle between style and sense, in The City of Lost Children, style wins out. It’s a cool movie. Just try not to