Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's The City of Lost Children is a kind of crypto-Freudian fairy tale about a sinister mad scientist in a foggy harbor town who kidnaps children so he can steal their dreams. He also has philosophical arguments with a disembodied brain living in a tank of brine and employs a sextet of leering clones to do his dirty work for him. By way of explanation, the filmmakers say they are interested in illuminating the dark corners of pre-adolescent imagination.
They are more interested in showing off. As you might expect, Lost Children is what cinema academics and other nuisances like to call "visually adventurous." Which is to say it depends on a grab bag of special effects--shrouds of bright green smoke curling up dark staircases, assorted freaks and dwarves taking flight, mysterious old machines whizzing and banging and swallowing people--calculated to demonstrate how clever and artistically advanced the moviemakers are.
Anyone who lets a kid under the age of, say, 38, within three miles of this thing is out of his mind. It's full of scummy scare tactics that any grownup can spot but that will blindside children left and right. Call me bourgeois, mon ami, but the notion of half a dozen plump Santa Clauses dropping down a chimney, then absolutely terrorizing a small boy in his bedroom, is not some sort of psychological "truth"; it's a cheap trick. When the reindeer defecate on the carpet, it's a con job. And that's only the first sequence.
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Four years ago Caro and Jeunet set their caps to become Europe's new masters of the grotesque with Delicatessen, a bloody little chunk of urban nightmare that had the buffs buzzing. Now the collaborators have a bigger budget, and with it come larger ambitions: They've mixed the baser elements of Jules Verne, Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka into a work of sheer ugliness that poses as high art. It's the outpouring of movie geeks who have no real ideas to support their technical prowess. So they give us fantasy without thought, flash without substance, using "the subconscious" as an all-purpose alibi.
Nonetheless, Caro/Jeunet fans have taken to comparing the Frenchmen with the multitalented Terry Gilliam of Brazil and 12 Monkeys, or even with the greatest of film's comic surrealists, Luis Bunuel. Good luck. These impostors aren't worthy to carry the masters' pencils, much less their legacy.
Meanwhile, the movie's clever nine-year-old girl (Judith Vittet) and the brawny muscleman (Ron Perlman) who eventually bring the mad doctor Krank (Daniel Emilfork) low are meant to warm the heart, but the moviemakers can't help messing with that, too: A hint of pedophilia is clearly discernible amid the movie's general stink of fraud.
At least they didn't release this pretentious atrocity here at Christmas, as originally scheduled.