By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
The New York-based independent distributor GKIDS is becoming as sure a sign of quality animated cinema as Pixar or Laika. Specializing in importing the best in hand-drawn foreign fare, GKIDS has racked up eight Best Animated Feature Oscar nominations in less than a decade. In the last few years alone they released such enchanting and challenging movies as Ernest & Celestine, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Song of the Sea, When Marnie Was There, Boy & the World, and this year’s April and the Extraordinary World.
Their latest film is Phantom Boy, directed by the same French team that made the Oscar-nominated GKIDS import A Cat in Paris. Naturally, it’s as charming and inventive yet modest and unpretentious as most of the films that carry the GKIDS label. Phantom Boy weaves together comic books, film noir and supernatural sci-fi tropes into a sensitive (but not lugubrious) story of a young chemotherapy patient discovering new powers while his mortal body wastes away.
As a phantom, the boy can travel anywhere he chooses, teaming up with an injured cop to bring down a disfigured supervillain desperate to reveal his origin story. There’s barely enough material here to make it a feature-length film, even with a silly finale that involves guessing a computer password while a clock ticks down. However, there’s a good balance between genre homages and a genuinely eerie and affecting story of death and disease. Meanwhile, the film offers a vision of New York City so loving and romantic that it could only come from a foreign admirer.