The City of Lost Children begins with a young boy intently watching a chimney from the warmth and safety of his crib. A rope drops down, followed by Santa Claus. The pleasant smile on the boy's face drops when more and more Santas begin to clamber down the ceiling and through the windows. Reality appears to distort around the horrifying scene until the boy wakes up, screaming, amidst a nightmarish laboratory. The bald-headed scientist connected through tubes and wires to apparatus around the boy starts to scream as well. Five identical, imbecilic, child-like clone assistants begin to scream with him as a dwarven woman and a brain in a gilded box watch on. This is only the start of the freaks and wonders provided by this cult masterpiece of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro.
The bald scientist is Krank, played by Daniel Emilfork, the last and greatest experiment of a missing geneticist. He has but one flaw: an inability to dream, causing premature aging. Under the guidance of the aforementioned brain-in-a-box, Uncle Irvin, and with the assistance of the diminutive Mademoiselle Bismuth, he employs the five clones - all performed by Dominique Pinon - and an apocalyptic cult to kidnap children so he can steal their dreams to regain his youth. The cult, whose members have traded in their "human" sight for an artificial, sonar-detecting brass "cyclops" eye, make the mistake of kidnapping the adorable and troublesome Denree. His big brother One, played by Ron Perlman, a simple-minded circus strongman, pledges to hunt them down with the help of Dickensian child-thief Miette.
Though many reviewers have thought to draw a relation between City of Lost Children's insane technologies and the stories of Jules Verne, the connection is strained. It probably has more to do with their shared nationality, the film being a primarily French production by a pair of French writer-directors. City's setting is by no means Victorian; what we are shown is an Industrial-Age Urban Fantasy. Unlike the tiresome repetition of this genre-aesthetic in recent years, this decade-ahead-of-its-time film infuses it with a fanciful, fairy tale sensibility that surely marks its greater influence. Rather than Jules Verne, Junet and Caro are acting as heirs to Terry Gilliam.
Only buzzwords developed much later can be reasonably stringed together to describe it, and indeed the whole body of Junet's work (minus Alien: Resurrection). One can call it "magical realism" or "heightened reality", either way Junet has the capacity of focusing on the smallest things to tease out the extraordinary in what we mistakenly overlook as ordinary. This attribute unifies such diverse films as Delicatessen (1991) and Amélie (2001), ranging from Fallout-esque 1950's post-apocalyptic to contemporary Parisian romance. A glance or a twitch can make a normal person seem psychotic, a concentrated look at their lives can make a psychotic person seem beautiful, or a laughably contingent set of absurdities can fill us with wonder that those sorts of miracles are going on all the time.
A remarkable scene in City of Lost Children relies on this. Due to the machinations of Miette's criminal overlords, One has come under the influence of a chemical that has turned him homicidally against his friend. As he chokes her, a single tear flies from her cheek, landing on a spiderweb. This causes a twinkle that wakes a parrot which wakes a dog and sets in motion a ridiculously beautiful chain of events that saves them both. Several times throughout, we are given a flea's eye view of the city, notable because the fleas deliver the murderous toxin at the bequest of a former circus owner. He has been reduced to opiated servitude to his former charges, a pair of Siamese Twins who are now the very same criminal overlords.
Sideshow oddities, imbecilic clones, brains-in-boxes, armies of Santa Clauses... Distortion is the running theme of The City of Lost Children. The characters are all distorted in one way or another, and those who aren't cannot bear the cruelty of their world and so pluck out their own eyes. Even worse than his physical deformities, Krank is distorted by his own lack of a soul. His hunt to regain his youth by stealing the dreams of children is fruitless because within himself is the stuff of nightmares. As the characters are distorted so must the film follow suit. City remains the most extensive use of special effects in French cinematic history.
Sometimes this distortion can make City of Lost Children difficult to watch, in much the same way that Tod Browning's Freaks can be difficult. The ugly urban noir of the world can be a discomfort. Like the works of Terry Gilliam, however, this film balances this darkness with a charm within the horror that wins the viewer.