The City of Lost Children (1995) — Beautifully bizarre

“Quiet! You vegetable!”

Justin’s rating: Oh long-lost review, how I missed you so!

Justin’s review: Back in college, a couple friends and I used to frequent a small theater which featured the abstract musical stylings of a group called Squonk Opera. They’re honestly the oddest performance artists you’ll ever see, an absolute blast to watch them in action. While performing to trippy music, they cavort around on stage in bizarre costumes, around bizarre settings, and act generally bizarro. No one had a clue what story they were telling, but it was the sort of thing that’s a feast for the eyes and ears that lets your brain wander off and do its own thing. It was like discovering that you had an imagination all over again, which is why we loved it.

The City of the Lost Children is the closest thing cinematically that I can compare to Squonk. It’s a film full of gorgeous and otherworldly sets and costumes, yet the plot is so tepid and muddled that you just might as well let your brain explore around without the shackles of trying to follow any sort of exposition. Another way to put it is to liken it to the experience of stumbling into “that wing” of the art museum. You know, the room with all that art that makes no sense whatsoever, but is interesting to look at and make gross assumptions (“Yes, this piece symbolizes the struggle of the common man against the Keebler Elves”).

It is a French film, which means that it has free reign to be bonkers without any sort of calm-me-down juice. French cinema constantly delights in the oddest of things, such as little people and oversized outfits. Everyone in their movies has eyes the size of dinner plates; they’re big on acting with eyes. They also don’t always make solid attempts to make sense with their stories.

Let me try to summarize City’s plot: We start out with a young child being terrorized by a large group of alcoholic Santas. Lost yet? Then we flash to some old mad scientist who cannot dream. He employs a ton of midgets on an oil rig, which is highly suspect as a Oompa Loompa factory. His “uncle” is a brain in a vat who speaks to him. Desperate to dream, he’s kidnapping little children to feed off their dreams.

There’s a circus strong man who has his little son/brother kidnapped by some fat Borg. The strong man teams up with a little girl who’s had her brother kidnapped. We have no idea where the parents are. They bumble around a city in perpetual twilight, bordering some ocean that has pure green water. It’s all very Victorian steampunkish.

Meanwhile, the little people hold a birthday party for the uncle brain. And somewhere else, there are mean Siamese teachers who use the remaining kids as thieves. Eventually, the good guys get to the oil rig, rescue the lost children, and blow up the rig around the mad scientist. The midgets survive, hallelujah.

I’m not exactly sure what this film is supposed to be, maybe some sort of dark Peter Pan retelling. The dubbing is really, really bad. And while the Victorian technology is a feast for the imagination, there’s just too much slapstick nonsense and dumb little kids to make it anything more than a passing curiosity.

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