Wednesday, August 2, 2023

On the head-scratching disappointment that is Miraculous: Le Film

It's amazing how a small change of directors makes all the difference between one of the best superhero shows of the 2020s and this bland, uninspired retelling

French cartoonist Thomas Astruc's creation, the animated superhero TV show Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir, stands alone in its own league of excellence, and must not be confused with the recently launched Miraculous: Le Film, a watered-down retread of the protagonists' origin story. Both productions can be watched on Netflix, and both come from the same company (ZAG Entertainment), but the experience for the viewer couldn't be more different. While the show offers a wealth of excitement, drama, and action that fans are otherwise starved of in the ongoing stagnation of American superheroes, Le Film fails by every criterion to measure up to the show's quality, and presents a risk to the show's still modest presence among American viewers if this is their first taste of these characters.

Every single episode of the Miraculous show is written and directed by Astruc, although in later seasons he's become more and more assisted by co-writers and co-directors. The effect of his continued authorial hand is a clearly defined tone and a consistent moral stance. In depicting an everyday battle between overemotional teenagers and a manipulative villain whose superpower is to exploits people's emotions, Miraculous takes the side of empathy against callousness, of openness against duplicity, of community against selfishness. Astruc imparts upon the story not only a strong psychological foundation (all the more important in a show aimed at small children), but also a sweet sense of humor and a keen awareness of political issues. This is a story that respects its characters' inner complexity and trusts young viewers to grasp why sometimes people make regrettable choices.

Miraculous: Le Film was made with no creative involvement from Astruc. Its director is Jeremy Zag, who for the past eight years has been producer and composer for the show. Le Film follows the same premise, the same art style, the same general plot, the same character dynamics, the same setting, the same dramatic stakes, and the same magical worldbuilding. Yet the execution noticeably lacks the Astruc touch. Instead of a sensitive, resourceful, good-natured character, this version of Ladybug is mostly defined by her incurable self-doubt and her swings of luck, with her signature creativity having minimal impact on the plot. On the show, each Monster of the Week has a specific motivation based on the human victim that was transformed to create it. This monster is always defeated by Ladybug's cleverness, and the detransformed victim is treated with unfailing compassion. On Le Film, the action is closer to conventional American superhero fights, no attention is given to the detransformed victims' lingering emotional turmoil, and the monsters lack a motivation of their own.

Ladybug's superhero partner, Cat Noir, is in the show a sheltered boy for whom the chance to put on a mask is the much-welcome permission he needs to let loose and express all the joy and goofiness he wouldn't dare show in front of his tyrannical father. In Le Film, his personality is flattened to blank sadness in his civilian life and instant arrogance when masked. Instead of being mainly motivated by his loneliness to seek normal human connection outside of his father's exclusive circle, here he's a recluse by choice (we first meet him hiding from his classmates in the school library) who only displays a personality when in Ladybug's presence.

A similar misstep occurs with the character of Cat Noir's father, who is secretly the supervillain Hawk Moth. From a towering presence of aristocratic disdain, he's reduced to a "mad scientist" archetype who just needs to be understood. Because Le Film makes the mistake of packing five whole seasons of story into one movie, we get the opportunity to see how this version of Hawk Moth is defeated, and the result is another disappointment. The show version of this climactic fight has the tragic gravitas that can only be carried by a character we've grown to know intimately through his interactions; in Le Film, his defeat is almost an afterthought. The psychological depth that makes Hawk Moth a compelling antagonist is here reduced to a colossally ill-advised musical number.

Alas, it's not the only one. The runtime is padded with song after song after generic, boring, inconsequential song, animated with one bit too much plasticity, as if trying to emulate the classic Disney look. Similarly, the emotional beats feel calculated to appeal to American sensibilities, with Ladybug's mission changed from finding strength in her peers to believing in herself and her destiny. The vast, carefully detailed cast of supporting characters from the show is seen in Le Film just filling the background as extras. The gentle, long-suffering Master Wang Fu is turned into a tokenized Mystical Asian caricature. The animal spirits that give our heroes their superpowers are drawn with creepily exaggerated facial expressions, and poor Plagg in particular is turned into a nonstop deliverer of fart jokes.

Over (so far) five seasons, Astruc has taken deliberate care in the way the show reveals information. Fans had ample opportunity to get acquainted with these heroes as they gradually watched their romance grow and ultimately thrive. Such crucial questions as Hawk Moth's identity or the nature of his wish took years to be answered. Le Film takes all that elaborate web of secrets and crams it into mere minutes of obvious and hurried dialogues. Every edge that for eight years has made Miraculous a fantastic story with rich lore, appealing characters, and great humor has been sanded down to just the vague outline of its story and an unrecognizable profile of who its characters are. Despite the slightly improved digital imagery, this film was a bad idea at all levels of its production. Even worse, as a possible first look into this world for new audiences, it's a disservice that the show doesn't deserve.

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.