There’s been a pretty decent run of quality animation in recent times. From your family-pleasing Disney Pixar works that touch on broad, universal themes, and are often hilarious. To the exotic realms of international animation, such as Japan’s Your Name or the more locally produced Song of the Sea, these are movies that stand apart from U.S. animation with their own unique style and cinematic sensibilities.

French animation has also been a haven for deeply original work, like Sylvain Chomet’s works The Triplets of Belleville and The Illusionist, or the comic book-based film Persepolis. These all demonstrate Europe’s place in a more subtle and exuberant form of animation. However, Phantom Boy doesn’t reach the heights of French animation that one might hope from such an interesting and fun premise.

This could be a superhero story unto itself as we find ourselves with Leo, a young lad being told a story in bed. It’s a cops and robbers story at first, then revealing mischievous super villains and powerful heroes. His bedtime story comes to an end as, in the real world, Leo is sent to the hospital, having been diagnosed with cancer. While at the hospital between the boundaries of life and death, Leo discovers he has the power to leave his physical body, becoming a ghost that can pass through solid objects and fly for a period of time.

A ghost and a patient at the hospital, Leo befriends Alex, a cop who has a close call with a super villain of sorts: “the man with the broken face,” who resembles a mosaic Two-Face. Like a Batman villain, the Two-Face-like character threatens to cause chaos in the city by releasing a deadly computer virus that would disrupt the city’s infrastructure. Alex and Leo team up to uncover the villain’s whereabouts and stop them.

An immediately noticeable detail is the style of the film, carried over from the director’s prior work on A Cat in Paris. The watercolours provide a lot of texture to the image and the overall aesthetic gives the impression we’re dreaming in a boy’s head. The scenes of Leo flying around as a phantom take advantage of the medium, but much of the film is dialogue-focused, so we’re constrained to static scenes most of the time.

What troubles me the most about Phantom Boy is that, while it isn’t a bad viewing experience, many opportunities for interesting story arches were missed out. Leo’s experiences dealing with disease and a special power that seems to be tied to his mortality are not drawn on nearly enough as they should be. On paper it sounds like the sort of plot detail that would make the film a great tear-jerker and the film barely inspires much emotion.

Taking a light approach to crime mystery solving in a children’s animated film is all well and good, but the stabs at humour and even the scenes of danger don’t fit the tone of the film. So you’re put in a position where you don’t know whether or not to let your guard down for the funny parts, nor if you should sit up straight for when the film wants to get a bit serious.

The French are known for extraordinary films, animated or not, but unfortunately Phantom Boy doesn’t quite hit that mark. It isn’t wholly unpleasant, but it does feel vacuous, and it misses out on a lot of potential for ambitious storytelling that only animation could tell. If you’re going to watch it, watch the version with the original French cast and not the over-directed English language dub.

Dir: Jean-Loup Felicioli, Alain Gagnol
Scr: Alain Gagnol
Cast: Edouard Baer, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Audrey Tautou, Jackie Berroyer, Gaspard Gagnol, Noa Bernaoui-Savreux, Patrick Ridremont, Patrick Descamps, Yves Barbaut, Vincent D’Onofrio, Marcus D’Angelo, Joey Camen, Fred Armisen, Melissa Disney
Prd: Jacques-Remy Girerd
Music: Serge Besset
Country: France
Year: 2015
Running Time: 84 mins

Phantom Boy is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.