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City of Lost Children has a familiar look -- the look of a winner

Some moviegoers settling down to watch Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's City of Lost Children might think they've wandered into a Terry Gilliam film by mistake. All the signs are there: a dreary, moody community (this one a harbor town) as the setting; elaborate machinery that looks like a vision of the future as designed by Jules Verne, or a 1930s sci-fi artist; a cast of weird characters that might have served as extras in a Fellini film.

But appearances can (and do) deceive, and Gilliam fans who see this French production as a Gilliam pastiche and let it go at that, or Gilliam haters who pass this movie up because they think it's going to be "depressing" or "negative" in a Gilliam way, are both doing themselves a disservice. City of Lost Children is purely its own movie. It is distinctive and unique.

Admittedly, though, the Gilliam connection isn't completely wrong. Gilliam has been a champion of directors Jeunet and Caro, and was in part responsible for bringing their earlier film, 1991's Delicatessen, a fantasy involving cannibalism, to the U.S. But where Gilliam is obsessed with the faceless power of organizations and characters who are alienated or alone, Jeunet and Caro are concerned with connections, not only between places and the people who live there, but, more important, between people themselves.

City of Lost Children begins with such a connection, albeit a cruel one: a hawk-faced evil genius named Krank (Daniel Emilfork), who lives in a fantastical pod that sits like an oil platform above the sea, is lying in a machine with a child, and they are dreaming. It is a Christmas dream of a carefully decorated nursery and quaint toys. But then this glowing, nostalgic image twists into a nightmare, with a gang of leering Santas and filthy reindeer. This shifting vision, we find, comes because Krank and the innocent child are sharing their dream. Or, more correctly, Krank, who cannot dream on his own, is stealing the dream of the child. The pair awaken screaming, and are removed from their dream-sharing sarcophagus.

Because he's an evil genius, Krank has convinced six clones (all portrayed by Dominique Pinon) and a vengeful woman midget, Miss Bismuth (Mireille Mosse), to assist him with his experiments. Krank's desire is one day to find a dream that will make him cry, and that his tears will make him fully human. The reality of his experiments is that they destroy the children involved, and that through his cruelty, he becomes less human each time he invades someone's sleep.

Not every member of the sea pod population is willing to help Krank in his quest. Irvin, the most winsome brain-in-a-tank ever to grace a movie screen (voiced by Jean-Louis Trintignant), is not on Krank's side. He also seems to be up to something: he sends out messages, green gas dreams sealed in copper tubes, over the side of the pod toward shore, where the glowing smoke snakes its way along the city's byways, delivering its secret information.

In the city live a circus strongman, One (Ron Perlman), and a petite criminal, Miette (Judith Vittet). One is crude, but loving and loyal, and the object of his love is "little brother," a foundling named Denree (Joseph Lucien). Miette is part of a gang of urchins who work for a criminal known as The Octopus (Siamese twin harpies played by Genevieve Brunet and Odile Mallet), though the urchins don't seem to have much of a choice in the matter. The Octopus runs an orphanage, and sends the children who live there out to rob.

Given that Krank is a child-stealer, and that the strongman has a beloved little brother, it's not surprising that the central adventure in City of Lost Children involves One's saving Denree from Krank. But there is much more to be found here than a simple tale of rescue. Just as the film's every scene is rich with odd detail, the story's every action is rich with meaning. Denree is indeed stolen, snatched by the Cyclopes, religious fanatics who gouge out their natural eyes and install in their place a single whizzing, whirring surveillance camera. And One's attempts to rescue Denree get him mixed up with Miette (she knows, she tells One, where the Cyclopes go). Miette is moved by One's love of Denree and gets away from The Octopus to accompany him on his quest. So well before the midpoint of the movie, One and Miette are connected to each other and to the child they wish to save. And they're both on the run, from something and to something.

The recitation of these facts does not convey the emotion of their story, which is about the glory and joy of finding someone who appreciates what you can do, and needs you to do it.

Ron Perlman, best known as the more hirsute of the leads in TV's Beauty and the Beast, has shown a talent for playing surreal creatures before. His new beast, One, a creature all muscle and heart, is less articulate than Beauty and the Beast's leonine creature, though One is more sensitive and sincere. Not that he's a eunuch. In fact, he drinks with whores. He is also not a simpleton. He's simply someone who defines himself as a protector of children. If he took a wife, his reason would be to provide a mother for Denree (and, later, Miette). The key thing is, at no point does One feel proud of himself for his paternal instincts. It's something he simply has.

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