Harper Watched: Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart

Today's Harper Watched is about a French animated film now available in the US called Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart. I had seen a trailer/preview for the film earlier this year and I was very excited to see it so I picked it up when I came upon it at Target.


What first drew me to seeing this film was a combination of inherent interest in animated movies (because I'm basically an 8 year old with discerning taste) and the wonderful visual style of the animation. I first came across a clip and I thought the song was so sweet and pretty (although lyrically a little strange, which I later realized was a function of a few different factors which I will get into later). Before I get into it too much, here's the trailer.


So as you might gather from the trailer, this story is something like a steampunk, fairy-tale-esque fever dream. It's about a boy named Jack who was born on the coldest day ever, and has his frozen heart replaced with a cuckoo clock. As a result, he's delicate, and above all else, he can never fall in love-- his heart wouldn't be able to stand it. But of course, on the one day he's finally allowed into town, he hears a lovely little girl singing a song in the square about how she has poor eyesight but dislikes wearing glasses. Her name is Acacia, and she sprouts thorns when she feels upset or threatened. He falls in love with her and goes on a quest to find her again, no matter what it might do to his cuckoo clock heart.

The film is based on a novel based on an album by the band Dionysos (all three works share the same writer) and as such, it's what might be colloquially described as "trippy." It's very surrealist and heavily stylized. The best way to describe it is a mix of Tim Burton meets Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby) meets Salvador DalĂ­ (a famous surrealist artist. Collaborated with Walt Disney himself on a short film called Destino which was posthumously released in 2003). The original album on which Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart is based off of is brilliant and full of other stories that didn't make it into the film. Granted, I don't speak French, but I'm not the kind of person who can't appreciate music in another language. Much of the story is told through song and the entire film has an air of dream-like absurdity and magic. The animation is often a literalization of metaphorical or hyperbolic expressions and sensations.

The music itself is brilliant, but at times the lyrics and dialogue are less than tight. This is largely a function of the fact that the lines all had to be written in such a way that the English-speaking actors who were dubbing the film could roughly match the timing to the mouth movements of the animation. Some higher budget films actually reanimate the mouths to match each language, but it's pretty rare. Anyway, that made it hard to translate some things in the best possible way. The film also takes place across a pretty odd time-span-- at least in my opinion.  It goes through the course of several years, but apparently the majority of the movie takes place when Jack and Acacia are 14. Personally, I enjoy the film a lot more it I imagine them being at least 16 but preferably 19 during the main action of the film. Some of the songs have a slightly disconcerting sexual nature to them, but I think that's mostly a cultural thing that didn't translate terribly well, and the movie doesn't make a huge deal out of them. (Once again, it's better if you imagine them older than they apparently are.) I think in the album it's also probably originally conceptualized with the characters being older. One of the crown jewels of this film was the casting of Samantha Barks (Fantine in the new Les Miserables film) as Miss Acacia. Her voice is amazing! A lot of the voices sound better to me in French-- likely because the lines are more natural in French than in English, and because the creator of the work got to pick exactly who he wanted for the French version-- but Samantha Barks is so phenomenal that I like her voice better than the original French Acacia.

Overall, I really enjoyed the film. It kind of recalls Across The Universe, the film based on a musical based on the music of the Beatles, except I liked Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart a lot more. There are the shared elements of music and stylization and a general surreal-ness, but Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart has a much more coherent plot. Granted there definitely are plot points that seem to just get dropped or feel very strangely timed, but over all it makes sense (unlike how I felt watching Across the Universe) and I think it works in that the entire movie is so dream-like. That said, I have a burning desire to sort of re-write it in such a way that it's more narratively fulfilling instead of the way it currently stands as an emotional, romantic, surreal piece that doesn't have the strongest sense of narrative structure or symmetry. As the film currently plays to a US viewer, it feels very much like a sweet, sad dream one might wake from in tears with beautiful, confusing, fleeting memories of what happened and a heavy sense of the emotional importance of the dream. This movie destroyed me and I loved every minute of it.

I wouldn't call this a "family movie." It's dark and often sad. This is the kind of movie that kind of crumples your heart up like an empty paper lunch bag. The music is probably what makes it acceptable-- somehow the ridiculous emotional roller coaster that is this film is okay because of the music taking you on this journey. I'm pretty sure if it weren't for the music and the way it plays into the gorgeous animation I would have been incredibly dismayed at the wreckage this film left my heart. The music made the whole thing so romantic and genuine.

Overall, if you're not into surreal works or romantic pieces, you probably won't like this movie, but if that's what you are into, this is a rare treat. I really liked the film despite its dream-like weirdness. It was charming enough to overcome its lack of strong organization because for the most part, it seems like a stylistic choice to further the surreal story-telling.

Harper's Rating: 4 / 5

Pros:
Amazing music
Gorgeous animation
Samantha Bark's voice like WHOA
Really weird/surrealist
Dream-like
Romantic
The visual direction is amazing
There are not enough steampunk fairy-tale films, am I right?

Cons:
You will feel a lot of feelings
There is a solid amount of sadness. Not at Holocaust movie levels, but it's definitely way more than you might expect
There is a weird sun-shaped person background character that I find deeply disconcerting
The story is not the tightest
The English translation has a lot of the same issues that typically come with translating a work

It's definitely not everyone's cup of tea, but it is really wonderful. I watched it two days in a row, and I've been singing songs from it all week!

Have you seen this movie before? Do you want to? What do you think about it?


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