PLAYING AT SIFF | 'Phantom Boy' a light, breezy film as summer winds down

It’s hard to discuss danger. Whether it’s a journalist chasing a dangerous lead, a policeman being unprepared for an ambush, or a child who’s very sick, it’s not easy to talk through all the possibilities. It often requires a much lighter touch.

That’s how “Phantom Boy” does it. Leo (Alex Gagnol) is a young boy with (presumably) cancer, stuck in the hospital away from his family. But what no one else knows is that he has gained the ability to float outside his body; swooping, flying, and exploring his way through the New York he hasn’t been able to see. When he meets an injured cop (Edouard Baer) working with a journalist (Audrey Tautou) to stop a madman holding the city hostage, Leo starts to put his “phantom” abilities to use.

“Phantom Boy” finds a quaintness in both its story and its animation. The overall tone is breezy and funny; the flat, cubist style of animation imbues the world with a fun and peaceful feel. It buzzes in the same way, while adding an element of quietness and simplicity and still communicating the warmth of Leo’s world.

It’s there perhaps that the animation and the story find its best balance: The issues Leo—and by extension Alex, his police officer friend—are dealing with are serious. For Alex there’s a bandit running around with a broken face terrorizing the city. For Leo there’s his worsening condition, and the way his parents put on a brave face for him. The movie walks a fine line between how it handles its more serious edges, but manages to find some layers of nuance within its simple style. There’s some sly humor and hints of maturity that will satiate adults, while kids will enjoy the imagination of it all. Even the villain’s “broken face” is masked in its animation by perhaps the most explicit cubist reference of all.

As a whole the story is modest; it doesn’t carry a great deal of weight, the fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance of each action as it does in so many of the bustling blockbusters of the summer. “Phantom Boy” keeps the stakes low. Its tale is grounded by the humanity of its characters and the delightful voices backing them up. Tautou and Baer work some natural chemistry into their scenes together, and Jean-Pierre Marielle works spins some magic as the madman who just wants to monologue. But it’s Gangol, whose phantom serves as narrator and player all at once, who gets the real gold star. His young wisdom helps elevate the story, and keep the elegant hand-drawn animation feeling like a breath of fresh air.

His work also keeps the movie on track without being manipulative. The story itself won’t surprise savvy filmgoers (though it may delight young ones) but it yokes out enough emotional material to enchant. “Phantom Boy” is the perfect sweet fare for kids and adults alike as summer winds down (and as a noisy election season ramps up). Like Leo’s phantom self, it’s light on its feet even as it covers a lot of ground.

"Phantom Boy" screens Aug. 19-25 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.