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Jack And The Cuckoo-Clock Heart

Shout Factory // PG // October 7, 2014
List Price: $24.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted October 3, 2014 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

French import Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart originated as a combination of a book and a concept-driven album, La Mecanique du Coeur, from the band Dionysos, influenced by the brand of macabre, lyrical storytelling you'd typically find in Tim Burton's oeuvre. The narrative mixture successfully blended into an animated music video for one of the album's catchier tunes, "Tais-toi mon coeur", which naturally sparked the idea to transform its fantasy-bound concept -- a boy with a cuckoo-clock heart is forbidden to fall in love for health reasons, yet does so anyway -- into a feature-length motion picture. Director Stephane Berla, who also directed the music video, shares creative duty with the band's lead singer, Mathias Malzieu, to shape the seemingly easy-to-adapt book, music, and visual concepts into a form of the story befitting the big screen. Unfortunately, despite its infectiously quirky concept and an alluring visual style, the repeated winding of Jack's heart seems to have worn down the fluid movement of its mechanisms, resulting in a rickety display of breakable hearts and day-seizing.

We're transported to a fanciful version of mid-1800s Edinburgh, Scotland in the story's beginning, starting on the coldest evening in recorded history. Through the frost and persistent snow, a pregnant woman makes her way to a local witch midwife, Madeleine, who offers her booze and pancakes before beginning the birthing procedure. After the mother's delivery, the midwife discovers that the baby's heart has been frozen solid (somehow, the other internal organs are fine), leading her to improvise a functioning heart for little newborn Jack: a small cuckoo-clock heart, complete with a sharp-beaked bird that juts out. Under the midwife's care following his mother's abandonment, Jack lives an isolated life where he abides by a series of rules to keep him safe considering his condition, until he's old enough to travel with Madeleine to the city. There, he runs the risk of breaking one of his rules -- to never fall in love -- when he meets Miss Acacia, a musically-inclined young girl whom he immediately falls for.

If creative aesthetics were the only components needed for a quality piece of animated storytelling, then Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart would be heralded as a triumph. On the surface, it's beautiful: Jack's pregnant mother hikes through a whimsical snowy wonderland where frozen-solid birds flop gracefully into snow mounds, while an older Jack curiously observes the sepia-tinted, sun-covered curves of his local town after years of isolation. Magical, slightly macabre touches -- starting with an ice-cube heart being clipped out from a baby's chest -- add dashes of the bizarre to everything that's going on, illustrated by an intricate visual style that emphasizes lean bodies, wide eyes, and tender expressions in the characters' semi-broad faces. Writer/co-director Mathias Malzieu's band, a low-key but robust mix of classic and alt-rock, supplies the rhythmic energy from scene to scene, coupled with abstract, poetic lyrics that double as an emotional narrative. Independently, all its uniqueness offers a lot to absorb as the hands of Jack's heart tick away along his journey into the world, toward Acacia.

The script holding Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart together doesn't do its individual artistic merits the diligence they deserve, though. It isn't wise to think about the premise any deeper than the surface -- how'd Jack made it through childhood fears if love and anger are too much for his clock-heart to take? -- since there's not much to the story beyond its droopy emotional tempo, weakened by the arbitrary limits of Jack's emotional threshold. Hinged on the very brief, love-at-first-sight meeting of a young boy and girl that'll linger for many years, the metaphors laced within Dionysos' conceptual lyrics end up feeling awkward and incompatible against the plain story of Jack's fragile machine of a heart and his forbidden infatuation for Miss Acacia. Those imaginative flourishes that entrance on their own end up being a hodgepodge when stuck together, especially unsatisfying during the singing numbers, rooted in Malzieu's grasp on dreamlike idiosyncrasy and a desire to emulate Burton and Selick's stop-motion tone. What's left but to flip one's mind off and try to embrace the strung-together images and sounds as a quirky children's book in motion.

That could work, mind you, had Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart not ended up being such a melancholy affair as its gears kept moving. Jack's ticker suffers a physical and emotional gauntlet throughout -- needlessly tortured during the boy's voluntary school years and reinvigorated during travels outside of Edinburgh in search for Miss Acacia -- a figurative expression of the fragility of emotion, the power of a mother's protective love, and overcoming the fear of heartbreak. Much of those intentions gets obscured in a blizzard of misguided, artificial tragedy late in the film, though, powered by needless dishonesty and manipulation that's consciously engineered for gloomy repercussions. Despite the resolve of its visual splendor and delicate temperament, Jack's story ultimately doesn't offer much of a takeaway beyond breaking down into self-indulgent tragedy and, unfortunately, a feeling of futility about the makeshift boy's journey. Heartbreak may be unavoidable, but there are better ways of conveying that point than this frigid ticking of clockwork, well within the spectrum of these imaginative minds.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

Predictably, the contemporary digital animation of Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart looks outstanding on Blu-ray, framed at 1.85:1 in a 1080p AVC treatment that hits the textures, shades, and colors like clockwork. The pinks of skin colors impressively respond to the animation's variations in lighting, while the gradation of Madeleine's makeup and the flickers of different colors in eyes are fluid and captivating. Follicles of hair, fabrics in clothing, woodgrains, and various colored bricks in walkways are all enormously impressive. Contrast never swallows up details in darker sequences, and the range of restrained-yet-entrancing colors in the palette -- vibrant reds against chilly blues; browns and tans in wood and buildings; dark fabrics and vibrant snowy whites -- are all vibrant, respectful of intentions and free of bleeding. Little things become the true delights of this image, such as the light shine and translucency of an orange balloon and the charred ends of pancakes and the ripples of a skillet, all of which looks tangible enough to be realistic. Aside from a forgivable amount of faint smoothness in some backgrounds and textures, wow.

Now, we've got two separate language tracks here, both of which are well-reflective of the film's intentions: the original French language track with optional English subtitles, and an English dub. Both are suitable in their 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, but the polish and organic balance in the French language option -- on top of the fact that it's the original recording -- becomes the most satisfying choice. Whichever one you choose, however, you're getting a pitch-perfect, incredibly engaging sonic treatment: Dionysos's rhythmic rock is carefully balanced and delivers a satisfying level of punch through its percussion, bass, and vocals; verbal clarity is silky smooth and free of any distortion; and several sound effects telegraph noteworthy bumps in high-definition engagement, especially during train travel and a rollercoaster ride. The English subtitles are only available in an SDH option, though, so any sound effects will be typed out and in parenthesis. They're incredible well-translated, though.

Special Features:

Aside from a series of Character Profiles (HD) -- Jack (2:01); Acacia (2:12); Joe (2:03); Meleis (2:23); Arthur (2:39); and The Aunts (2:27) -- which combine pre-visualization clips with concert footage and interviews, Shout! Factory have also included a From Book to Screen (6:20, HD) featurette on Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart. Despite being brief, the piece features concise and insightful interviews with the filmmakers about the project's origins, coupled with glimpses at concept art and behind-the-scenes shots. Disc Two offers a standard-definition presentation of the film, complete with all special features, while a Digital Copy code has also been included.

Final Thoughts:

Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart unfortunately belongs in the category of style-over-substance animation, and not because this creation from the concept band Dionysos is void of deeper intentions. Instead, this French-imported ballad about a boy retrofitted with a clockwork heart can't seamlessly bring together its abstract lyricism, jazzy music, and metaphorical imagery about braving the tumultuous grounds of having one's heart broken. Despite the appealing animation style and the unique characters and setting brought to life through it, the script feels too scatterbrained to realize the potential of everything in its grasp, coupled with a turn towards bleaker sensibilities in the final act that put a major damper on the film. Shout Factory's Blu-ray is pretty awesome on the audiovisual front, though, which will make a Rental more than satisfying.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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