Krank, an evil inventor incapable of dreaming, kidnaps children hoping to steal their dreams - but can only retract their nightmares. But when the adoptive younger brother of circus strongman One is taken, One teams up with thief Miette to stage a daring rescue.
Delicatessen, the feature debut of Jeunet et Caro, was such a one-of-a-kind cult item, it would seem almost impossible to follow. Happily, given a larger budget and huge sets, the team has come up with a worthy successor in this more expansive though no less weird picture. Like Delicatessen, the setting is a fantastical alternate world located somewhere between Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Jules Verne's France, but this has a more fairy-tale-like narrative. The film hangs on a touching team-up between a good-hearted but dim-witted side-show strongman (Perlman) and a waif-like orphan thief (Vittet) as they search for Perlman's missing younger brother.
On an offshore rig, a renegade clone (Emilfork) and his four identical younger siblings (all Delicatessen's Dominique Pinon) tap into the dreams of stolen children, taking the advice of a brain in a tank with the voice of Jean-Louis Trintignant. Meanwhile, in a waterfront city of rusted metal and grotesque down-and-outs, Siamese twin sisters known as "The Octopus" run a Fagin-like operation, forcing children onto the streets to steal before selling not their ill-gotten gains, but the children themselves to the Nosferatu-ish Emilfork.
Also mixed up in it all is the broken-down opium-addicted owner of a flea circus, played by Delicatessen star Jean-Claude Dreyfus, and a sect of one-eyed revivalist cyborgs. Unlike Gilliam, who is clearly a major influence, Jeunet and Caro take care with their storyline and characters, hanging their cherished bits of astonishing business - a flea-cam trip from head to head, the chaos caused by a tear striking a cobweb, Emilfork's attempt to impersonate Santa Claus - on an involving, moving plot. The City Of Lost Children is as great a film as you thought Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was when you were five years old.
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Reviewed by Kim Newman