Stricken with leukaemia a young boy named Leo (voiced by Gaspard Gagnol) checks into hospital for treatment. There he discovers he has a special power. Leo can leave his body as a phantom able to fly all over New York city and spy on what is going on. At the same time luckless police detective Lieutenant Alex Tanguay (Edouard Baer) arrives in hospital having been injured while attempting to foil a disfigured criminal mastermind known as the Man with the Broken Face (Jean-Pierre Marielle). When Alex befriends Leo and learns of his extraordinary ability the pair team up together with Mary (Amélie herself: Audrey Tautou), a plucky journalist, to stop the villain holding the city to ransom with a deadly computer virus.
Phantom Boy is the follow-up for the French animation team behind the Oscar-nominated A Cat in Paris (2010). Like its predecessor the film delivers a beguiling, inventive mix of children's fantasy and pulp thriller that evokes France's rich heritage of vintage crime fiction along with the serials of Louis Feuillade. Animators Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol also continue their distinctive asymmetrical storybook art style that evokes both the work of classical French painters and old comic books, midway between Picasso and Hergé. Along with the story's deeper poetic undertones it allows Phantom Boy to forge its own unique identity and stand out amidst a now-crowded global market for animation. For its English language release the production adds some American talent including Vincent D'Onofrio as the voice of the Man with the Broken Face and Jared Padalecki, star of cult TV show Supernatural, as Alex.
Gagnol, who wrote the screenplay, draws a parallel between Leo's crime-fighting exploits and battle with his disease implying ultimately that choosing life over phantom heroics makes him a greater hero. To its credit the film does not trivialize Leo's illness. Yet despite a melancholy, at times borderline spiritual undertone to the tale the film fails to handle Leo's battle with leukaemia as deftly as the more fantastical adventure side of its story. The plot occasionally lacks momentum and gets a little too bogged down in the comedic antics of the villain's two inept henchmen although delivers a fine punchline to a running gag with his vicious little dog. Equally amusing are the frustrated attempts of the would-be self-aggrandizing bad guy to tell the story behind his disfigured face to an increasingly incredulous Mary. Although seemingly saddled with the Lois Lane damsel-in-distress role, Audrey Tautou proves no less sprightly and beguiling a vocal performer than she is on screen. In fact, with heroic cop Alex more or less stuck in hospital, the film pleasingly has Mary develop into an increasingly feisty and forthright character with more chances to shine.
Overall Phantom Boy crafts a witty, moving, occasionally ingenious story with vivid, well-crafted characters and some very funny gags. Felicioli and Gagnol also stage solid suspense sequences so that, while not quite a match for A Cat in Paris, this remains superior animated fare handsomely mounted by people who clearly care about family entertainment.