Dreaming of ‘Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart’

Told like one of Georges Méliès’ féeries stories, “Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart” is a balancing act — a Jenga tower that could have easily toppled over.

On one hand, you see the romantic and tragic tale of “Romeo & Juliet.” On top of that, you see the quixotic influences of Miguel de Cervantes, the surrealist paintings of Salvador Dali and the gothic characters often found in Tim Burton films.

The fragile balance is even more precarious when beautiful, almost life-like animation is interspersed with musical numbers in a steampunk world.

And then suddenly, Georges Méliès (Jean Rochefort, Stephane Cornicard) appears in an animated film he might have written, directed or invented once upon a time.

Written and directed by French author Mathias Malzieu based on his book and album, “La Mécanique du Cœur” (which translates to “Mechanics of the Heart”), “Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart” is a surrealist and dreamlike fairytale about another boy named Jack (Mathias Malzieu). This one didn’t nip at your nose, climb beanstalks or rip throats from prostitutes in London. This Jack was born in Edinburgh on a night so cold that his heart became encased in a block of ice.

Luckily, the witch doctor Madeleine (Marie Vincent, Emily Loizeau) was able to repair Jack’s frozen heart, replacing it with bits of gears and magic. Instead of a beating and bloody heart, Jack was given a cuckoo-clock, which chimed when it was startled and smoked when he felt any passion.

To protect his mechanical heart, Jack was given three rules to live by: 1. Never touch the hands of the clock; 2. Control his temper; and 3. Never fall in love. Naturally, he breaks the rules and becomes infatuated with a girl named Miss. Acacia (Olivia Ruiz, Samantha Barks).

Like Salvador Dali paintings, the film stretches time and probability. In one moment, you’re longboarding through desserts; in another, you’re climbing the sky — flying and falling through scenes filled with pop-up houses, bouquets of glasses, cats with elongated necks and smoke made out of paper.

Malzieu and his co-director Stéphane Berla present us a magic show walking the tightropes of a surrealist dream.

It isn’t a smooth walk. It floats and falls. Pushes and pulls. Flickers and stops in seemingly random bursts.

It’s a film full of contradictions filled with things that shouldn’t exist. A man with a spine of a xylophone. Humans with elephant ears. And a boy with the cuckoo-clock heart.

Yet somehow, all these pieces fit together like misfit toys — both ugly and beautiful, forgotten and loved.

“Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart” was directed by Stéphane Berla and Mathias Malzieu based on Malzieu’s book and screenplay. The film contains original music from Malzieu’s band Dionysos.  

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The idea behind ‘Idea Thief’

University of Herfordshire Master student Dani Alva is an idea thief in his own way. He borrowed the idea for his and Juan Lozano’s three-and-a-half-minute animated UK short from a quote from fantasy author Ursula K. LeGuin:

“I doubt the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, that child would grow up to be an eggplant.”

In “Idea Thief” (2015), eggplant-like men exist in the world — these rotund purple beings with pink bulbous noses. But eggplants still crave the imagination of children.

With a pair of binoculars, an eggplant burglar is drawn to boy with a bright incandescent light bulb above his head. He attempts to steal it, but some ideas can’t be stolen.

There’s no dialogue in Alva and Lozano’s animated short. There’s no need for it. Some ideas are universal.

“Idea Thief’s” been shown at many international film festivals, even winning the Sand Dune 1st Jury Award for Animation in India. Directed and animated by Dani Alva and Juan Loranzo based on Alva’s story, “Idea Thief” made its Western New York premiere at the tenth annual Buffalo International Film Festival. 

A visual ‘Feast’

It was love at first bite. A single greasy french fry solidified the friendship between a man and his dog.

Directed by Patrick Osborne and written by Osborne, Nicole Mitchell, and Raymond Persi, the Oscar-winning animated Disney short “Feast” is an irresistible potpourri of colors and sensations. It’s four-footed star is an adorable gray and white Boston Terrier mix named Winston.

Osborne gives us a dog’s eye view as Winston eats his way through pizza, pasta and popcorn. However, Lady-and-the-Tramp-style dinners are quickly replaced by Brussels sprouts and cilantro when his human meets a waitress at a restaurant.

Winston reluctantly settles into being the third wheel, but as he learns, sometimes there’s more important things than pizza.

“Feast” was directed by Patrick Osborne and written by Osborne, Nicole Mitchell and Raymond Persi. The six-minute short won the 2015 Academy Award for animated short film.

‘The Tale of Princess Kaguya’: the tale of girlhood

Last month, Dr. Sharon Marcus and Dr. Anne Skomorowsky wrote a through-provoking piece examining Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated film, “Boyhood.” Their Wall Street Journal article argued that “while boyhood is filled with possibility, girlhood is limiting.”

This is evident in Iso Takahata’s poignant hand-drawn animated Oscar contender “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” — a Studio Ghibli production produced over the past five years. While “Boyhood” feels very real, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is a fabricated fable about a celestial being who came under the care of a couple of peasants — a bamboo-cutter named Okina (Takeo Chii) and his wife (Nobuko Miyamoto).

Okina thinks the tiny Thumbelina he found in a bamboo shoot is destined to be a princess, so he does everything in his power to raise her like a daughter and to give her a better life. This includes moving the “Princess” away from their rural village and into the city. Okina even hires a private tutor (Atsuko Takahata) to teach her.

Based on the Japanese folk tale, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” Takahata’s film shows how a girl’s options are limited. “A noble princess does not frolic,” Kaguya’s tutor, Lady Sagami, tells her. A noble princess doesn’t open her mouth. She doesn’t laugh. She doesn’t even attend her own naming ceremony (that’s a three-night celebration for men like her adopted father — whom dictate her path).

“I might as well not be here,” Kaguya expresses.

Instead, a noble princess is expected to look beautiful and marry well. Her beauty attracts the attention of five noblemen, each asking for her hand.

This is very different from the choices “Boyhood’s” Mason is given. For him, the sky’s the limit. For her, her only decisions revolve around marriage.

Although Kaguya is a resourceful heroine, she confined as she grows up. Initially, we see a cherubic and carefree baby, amused by nature. She captures a frog. She befriends baby swine. She’s charmed by the wind blowing and the cherry blossoms. We even see her swinging on a vine with the rural neighborhood’s lost boys, led by their Peter Pan/Robin Hood, Sutemaru (Kengo Kora). But her laughter and smile disappears as she’s forced to adapt to humans’ inhumane definition of beauty.

That’s a beautiful and illuminating lesson — as hard to watch as Takahata’s 1988 WWII piece, “Grave of the Fireflies.” Bring the tissues.

“The Tale of Princess Kaguya” was written by Iso Takahata and Riko Sakaguchi and directed by Takahata. The film was nominated Best Animated Film in the 87th Academy Awards. 

‘Big Hero 6’: Disney’s AwesomeLand

Remember how “Modern Family’s” Phil Dunphy invented AwesomeLand in this season’s Halloween episode? No? Well, basically, he put everything he thinks is Awesome on the front lawn of the Dunphy’s home.

That’s what Disney’s latest animated picture, “Big Hero 6,” feels like. Taking place in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo (Yes, a portmanteau of San Francisco and Tokyo. Why? Because it’s awesome.), “Big Hero 6” is about 14-year-old boy-genius Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) and his band of “Avengers” — Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), Go Go (Jamie Chung) and Fred (T.J. Miller).

Loosely based on a 2008 Marvel comic, “Big Hero 6” is another superhero origin story.

Raised by his enthusiastic Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) and his older brother, Tadashi (because it wouldn’t be a Disney movie if the parents weren’t either absent or dead), Hiro wastes his potential winning loads of dough in illegal robot fights. That is, until Tadashi (Daniel Henney), introduces him to his acclaimed robotics university, the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, and his life’s project, Baymax (Scott Adsit) — a portable and personable inflatable medical robot.

To apply for admission to SFIT, Hiro pitches his microbots: tiny electromagnetic legos that can do anything the mind tells it to.

“If you can think it, microbots can do it,” says Hiro, echoing the words of Walt Disney. “The only limit is your imagination.”

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That seems to be the limit of Disney’s latest 3D animation as well. Like the fusion city, “Big Hero 6” is held together by imagination (and hundreds of animators and visual effect artists).

The film — by nerds for nerds — pays homage to others in its genre. Baymax wears an Iron Man-esque armor. His Hulk-like strength protects Hiro from danger. Hiro keeps a dalek on his bookshelf. Stan Lee’s portrait hangs on the walls.

“Big Hero 6” feels like a Pixar film (like how “Brave” felt like a Disney film). The animators have inserted dozens of hidden Easter eggs, including a basement filled with comics and action figures. Hans’ (from “Frozen”) mug shot hangs on a “wanted” poster at the police station; “Wreck-It Ralph’s” featured on a billboard over the city.

Directed by Don Hall (whose credits include “The Princess and the Frog,” “Tarzan” and “Winnie the Pooh”) and Chris Williams (“Bolt,” “The Emperor’s New Groove,” “Mulan”), “Big Hero 6” is a safe feel-good movie — filled with Disney’s perfected formula of both funny and poignant moments. Watching Baymax and gang in “Big Hero 6” is the perfect medicine for a bad day.

“Big Hero 6” was written by Jordan Roberts, Dan Gerson, Robert L. Baird, Duncan Rouleau, Steven Seagle, Paul Briggs and Joseph Mateo. The film was directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams. 

‘BoJack Horseman’: Netflix original comedy reining in the fun

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He looks like a horse, but acts more like an ass (who can also be a pig and a snake). He’s BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett), the surprisingly sympathetic star of the Netflix original adult cartoon about a wash-up ’90s sitcom actor.

BoJack’s claim-to-fame was as the parental figure of “Horsin’ Around,” a ’90s family sitcom about an anthropomorphic young stallion who adopts three adorable human orphans. The show’s about “good likable people who love each other, where, no matter what happens, at the end of 30 minutes, everything’s going to turn out OK,” BoJack drunkenly tells Charlie Rose in a TV interview.

In contrast, “BoJack Horseman’s” the antithesis of the traditional family sitcom. His life since the show’s cancellation takes place in his bachelor pad in his secluded Los Angeles mansion (you can see the Hollywood sign from his window). His three kids are replaced with Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul), his lazy freeloading roommate; and Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), his cheerful frenemy who starred in a spin-off sitcom with a similar premise.

While being a celebrity certainly has its own benefits, we don’t know if everything’s going to turn out OK at the end of these 30-minute episodes. His “Horsin’ Around” co-star Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal) just checked into rehab. The show’s creator, Herb Kazzaz (Stanley Tucci), is dying of cancer. And when first we meet BoJack, he’s no longer a stud.

BoJack’s approaching 40 and suffering through an existential crisis. This means watching reruns of himself on TV, getting drunk on his couch, sleeping with his agent/on-again-off-again girlfriend Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), eating a lot of carbs and trying to write a tell-all memoir to make people like him again.

“This book is my one shot in preserving my legacy,” says BoJack. “I’m a joke and if this book isn’t good, I’m going to be a joke forever. Everyone thinks I’m just this washed up hack, but actually… Oh God, what if they’re right?”

Banking on a success, Penguin (comedian Patton Oswalt) helps BoJack enlist successful ghostwriter Diane Nyugen (Allison Brie) to follow him around for the next 9 episodes. Like Diane, we’re there to witness BoJack steal muffins from a Navy SEAL (who’s literally a seal) on leave from Afghanistan; and we watch BoJack sabotage Todd’s attempts at a rock opera.

Sure, the hay’s a little stale. Like “30 Rock,” “BoJack Horseman” pokes fun at the industry. The Golden Globes are a “totally necessary awards show.” And character designer Cody Walzel creates anthropomorphic caricatures of Hollywood counterparts. Director Quentin Tarantino is a tarantula; Cameron Crow, known for his rock movies (“Almost Famous” and “Jerry Maguire”), is a raven who looks like a crow.

While “BoJack Horseman” is witty at times, the animated show spends a lot of time beating a dead horse. There’s some pretty bleak conclusions.

BoJack Horseman Meme“The universe is a cruel uncaring void,” Mr. Peanutbutter tells his girlfriend, Diane. “The key to being happy isn’t the search for meaning. It’s just to keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually you’ll be dead.”

While binge-watching distractions like “BoJack Horseman” won’t ultimately make you happy, writer and creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s writing achieves what BoJack wants from story: to connect with people.

And as Netflix renews the show for a second season, it looks like it did.

“BoJack Horseman” was created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg. 

Former Disney animator’s lyrical ‘Duet’ displays life’s dance

Sometimes we need art to show us the immense beauty in the world. That’s what animator Glen Keane gives us with his breathtakingly beautiful three-minute short, “Duet.”

Directed and animated by Keane (whose credits include Disney’s “Paperman,” “Tangled,” “Tarzan,” “Pocahontas,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid”), “Duet” features the dance between a boy and a girl.

Their song is one with many codas. The boy and girl meet again and again (not in as many lifetimes as the characters in “Cloud Atlas,” but at different stages of their lives), circling the same axis.

The boy somersaults through the grass. The girl performs perfect pirouettes. He catches her when she stumbles, and can’t seem to let go.

Their’s a fluid simplicity in Keane’s animation. The boy and girl are outlined in a ghostly blue, yet their world is full of color. We see it in their movements. We hear it in Zack Lydon’s music. It makes our eyes spin around them with jealousy and admiration. If this is the circle of life, we want to be a part of it.

Art imitates life in animated film ‘The Boxtrolls’

Monstrosity comes in all forms. Or so we learn from Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi’s existential animated 3D stop-motion picture, “The Boxtrolls.”

Based on Alan Snow’s children’s book trilogy, “Here Be Monsters!”, the 96-minute Laika Entertainment film (the production company responsible for “ParaNorman” and “Coraline”) is a steampunk adventure that explores the meaning of humanity. As the film begins, Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kinsley) leads a couple of henchmen through the hilly and windy cobblestone streets of Cheesebridge. Their mission: the virtuous deed of capturing and killing these vile nocturnal Gollum-sized creatures fabled to eat human children; these villainous fiends are called boxtrolls.

According to Snatcher, boxtroll extermination is a noble occupation and his key into the privileged cheese-eating royal ruling guild of white hats Lord Portley-Rinds (Jared Harris), Sir Langsdale (Maurice LaMarche), Sir Broderick (James Urbaniak) and Boulanger (Brian George).

His henchmen follow willingly enough, but don’t share Snatcher’s conviction.

“Do you think boxtrolls understand the duality of good and evil?” asks henchman Mr. Pickles (voiced by Richard Ayoade).

“They must,” answers Mr. Trout (Nick Frost). “Or else why would they hide from us? We are the good guys.”

Except good and evil aren’t clearly defined in Irena Brignull and Adam Pava’s script. While Snatcher shares “Despicable Me’s” Gru’s portly form, his attitude resembles Robert Helpmann’s child catcher from the 1968 classic “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”

Meanwhile, the boxtrolls are small and childlike, fascinated by round items likes gears and clocks. They talk in an adorable nonsensical babble. And call each other by the labels on the boxes in which they hide in.

Naturally, we fall in love with them. With their oblong heads and glow-in-the-dark yellow eyes, they resemble other animated cuties like “Despicable Me’s” minions.

Their underground lair is the rich and intricate treasure troves in “Wall-E.” Their most precious item: a baby boy (voiced by Isaac Hemstead Wright of “Game of Thrones” fame) fascinated by the lullabies from broken wind-up toys and old Italian barbershop quartet records (composed by Dario Marianelli). The boxtrolls call him Eggs. Fish (Dee Bradley Baker) becomes Eggs’ best friend and parental figure. The animation team, comprised of almost 30 members, create a charming montage into the boxtroll’s wondrous world.

But that world dwindles with each of Snatcher’s triumphs.

Like “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” “The Boxtrolls” conquers tough issues. Brignull and Pava’s screenplay deals with loss as skillfully as J.K. Rowling did when she penned the scene where Sirius Black fell through the veil in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”

“Why do we do this, Shoe?” asks Eggs as his boxtroll friends slowly disappear under Snatcher’s reign. “Carry on like everything’s normal?”

The answer, of course, is to live, but what is a life in hiding?

As difficult and grotesque as some of these lessons are, Annable and Stacchi’s film shows that art imitates real life and real life is ugly. Be sure to stick around for the credits, though, as the animators pull back the curtain and reveal the great wizard of Oz himself.

“The Boxtrolls” was directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi and written by Irena Brignull and Adam Pava, based on Alan Snow’s novel, “Here Be Monsters!” 

Animated short ‘Silent’ chronicles films of the ages

Limbert Fabian and Brandon Oldenburg of Moonbot Studios — who brought you the Academy Award-winning short “The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore” (2011) and Chipotle’s ” The Scarecrow” (2013)  — are at it again.

Their 2014 animated short, “Silent,” is to motion pictures as “The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore” is to books. It even features the familiar Morris Lessmore from the latter film.

This silent two-and-a-half minute love letter to cinema centers on two street performers who get caught in the rain.

They run into an empty run-down theater for shelter and as if by magic — Mr. Lessmore tumbles into a silent picture.

In order to show the evolution of cinema, Fabian and Oldenburg’s short animates iconic scenes from movies: the black-and-white action sequence of Godzilla on the Golden Gate Bridge; the hand-drawn animation of Disney’s “Zip-a-Pa-Dee-Doo-Dah”; the zombies from the stop-motion picture “ParaNorman”;  the ship from “The Pirates! Band of Misfits!”; and the “Inception-esque” free fall off of a skyscraper and into an “Alice In Wonderland-esque” rabbit hole.

Written by William Joyce, Fabian and Oldenburg and dedicated to the art and science of storytelling, “Silent” shows us how easy it is to escape into another world — if only for a moment.

“Silent” was directed by Limbert Fabian and Brandon Oldenburg; produced by Moonbot Studios; and distributed by Dolby Laboratories.

‘The Croods’: Not as crude as you’d think

Despite its namesake, “The Croods” really starts off quite charming. The first two minutes of Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders’ DreamWorks animation stars two-dimensional cartoon cave drawings and Emma Stone’s (“Easy A,” “The Help”) self-deprecatory, girl-next-door narration.

After that, it’s mostly crude and predictable.

Stone’s Eep, a teenaged cave girl in a Flintstone-esque tiger suit. She’s going through the whole teenaged rebellion thing and doesn’t like her father’s (Nicholas Cage) strict curfews or didactic stories (they all end in death).

Her family’s routine changes when she meets a guy named Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) and his pet sloth, Belt (voiced by Sanders himself). In the land before time, Guy’s a modern Prometheus with radical ideas of tomorrow. He’s the one who warns Eep that the world is ending (a.k.a. plate tectonics) and that the only way of survival is to keep moving forward.

Grug — that’s Eep’s dad — doesn’t like this any more than he likes change, but when their cave caves in, he reluctantly lets Guy lead them across Lisa Frank-colored jungles.

Written and directed by DeMicco and Sanders (the latter known for his credits in “Lilo & Stitch” and “How to Train Your Dragon”), “The Croods” slowly grow on you over their 98 minutes of screen time. First, it’s like being trapped on a long family vacation. You’re bored and miserable and really have to pee. But before long, you’re bamboozled by the sights — the aquamarine water, the viridian and fuchsia rainforests and the millions of tiny suns in the dark blue sky.

Even if you’re company is crude, at least you can enjoy the animation.

“The Croods” was written and directed by Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders. “The Croods” was nominated for Best Animation in the 2014 Academy Awards.