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A peculiarly Gallic mash-up of Georges Melies, Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), Kurt Weill, Edward Gorey, and Tim Burton-esque animation, Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart (La Mecanique du coeur) is a bit of scrapyard construction, and less fun to watch than that list of influences might suggest. Co-directed by writer-musician Mathias Malzieu, and music-video director Stephane Berla, this computer animated work has strikingly designed characters, and some good isolated sequences, but the script’s un bordel (French for shambolic mess). Considering Malzieu wrote the song cycle and book the movie is based on, he only has himself and production company EuropaCorp to blame. So far, Jack has done just okay business in France where they love all things strange and sui generis, taking around 200,000 admissions in its opening week. But non-Francophone distributors will wonder how to market a cartoon that’s a not very suitable for kids and not coherently made enough for grown-ups.
The project started out as a song cycle of cabaret-tinged rock songs, deployed here, by the French band Dionysos, for whom Malzieu is the lead singer and front man. Their sound is energetic, combining pop beats and retro instruments like glockenspiels and theremins, coupled with Malzieu’s inventive, literate lyrics – think Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt meets Julien Dore. From there, Malzieu spun off a short novella, with fey illustrations by Nicoletta Ceccoli, that’s had a life of its own as episodic bedtime reading for Goths, steampunk fans, and hipster parents. Plotwise, the film follows the book for the first part of the journey, but veers off in another peculiar direction.
On screen, the action starts sometime in the last quarter of the 19th century, in a place called Edinburgh that looks nothing like the real thing, either back then or now, or even like the version seen in Sylvain Chomet’s Scotland-set The Illusionist (2010). On the coldest day of the year, a pregnant woman takes shelter at mountain-top house owned by Madame Madeleine (voiced by Barbara Scaff in the English-language version shown in Berlin, and by Marie Vincent and Emily Loizeau in the French version). The woman gives birth to a little boy, named Jack, but his heart, on inspection, is a frozen solid block of ice, so Madeleine replaces it with a cuckoo-clock that must be wound every day. Jack’s mother slips away, believing that Madeleine will give him a better home, and he’s raised by the latter thereafter.
Madeline drums into Jack (voiced by Orlando Seale/Malzieu) three rules about his fragile, timekeeping heart: don’t touch its hands, don’t feel any strong emotions, and don’t fall in love. But during a visit to the city center by the time he’s a teenager, Jack comes seriously close to violating the third rule when he sees beautiful Miss Acacia (Les Miserables’ Samantha Barks/Olivia Ruiz), a hurdy-gurdy organ operator in the town square. After singing a pretty duet that literally elevates them into the clouds, they part, and Jack is left with a damaged clock and a deep desire to see his beloved again.
Unfortunately, it turns out the girl skipped town soon after they met. It takes many years and various misadventures, including conflicts with the film’s villain Joe — (Harry Sadeghi/Grand Corps Malade) whom Jack accidentally stabs in the eye with his cuckoo (goodbye ‘G’ rating) — before Jack grows big enough to go off on his own to find Acacia. Travelling by map, as they say in The Muppets, Jack buddies up in Paris with a young George Melies (Stephane Cornicard/Jean Rochefort) who’s not yet a filmmaker and proves a dab hand at cuckoo-clock maintenance. The two of them end up at the Extraordinarium, a carnival-cum-sideshow in Andalucia, where the nearly blind Acacia is working as a flamenco singer-dancer, and their love is rekindled.
With its bizarre secondary characters (a sun-shaped creature that gets around by rolling, for example), and use of infernal machines, like a train that seems to have been spliced with an accordion, there’s plenty of freakish eye candy to entice viewers with the taste for the baroque. But some mildly sexual references, sudden stabs of violence, and a major downer of an ending will make this a write-off for many parents of younger viewers. For the adult audience, on the other hand, the herky-jerky script grows seriously wearisome, and although the songs are sometimes pretty or atmospheric, they’re a bit same-y after a while. At least the character animation, three-dimensional renderings based on Ceccoli’s original drawings, have a dainty elegance, making their limited expressiveness into a virtue so that they resemble bewitched china dolls come to life.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Generation KPlus)
Production: EuropaCorp, Duran, France 3 Cinema, U Media, Walking the Dog
Cast: Orlando Seale, Samantha Barks, Harry Sadeghi, Stephane Cornicard, Sophia Ellis, Jessie Buckley, Barbara Scaff, Michelle Fairley, Richard Riddings
Director: Mathias Malzieu, Stephane Berla
Screenwriter: Mathias Malzieu, based on his book ‘Jack et la mécanique du cœur’
Producers: Virginie Besson-Silla
Production designers: Mike Ponton, Guillaume Bouchateau
Graphic designer: Nicoletta Ceccoli
Editor: Soline Guyonneau
No rating, 92 minutes
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